Thursday, July 31, 2008

Return of the Rovians

Last week, as Barack Obama addressed a crowd of hundreds of thousands in Berlin, John McCain talked two people in a supermarket. What can McCain do about Obama's ability to outdraw him by many times?

Attack, that's what. McCain is running a new ad that tries to turn Obama's advantage into a liability by painting him as an out-of-touch "celebrity" rather than a heavyweight politician.

What's interesting to me about the ad campaign is the strategy of it. It's obviously a return to Karl Rove's tactic of attacking the opposition's strength head-on. And where did Rove get this tactic? I have an idea.

Al Ries and Jack Trout, advertising gurus and authors of Positioning and Marketing Warfare make this suggestion in the latter book: if you're not the market leader, find a weakness in the leader's strength and use that as your point of attack. Don't find a weakness in the leader's general position. Find a weakness in their strength.

For example, they point to a rental car ad once used (by Avis, I believe) to attack Hertz. Hertz is the number one rental car company and had most of the customers. So the rival lured customers with this slogan: "The line at our counter is shorter." The weakness in Hertz's strength was that it inevitably had longer lines.

Rove was obviously trying this same strategy. One of Obama's biggest strengths is his magnetism. He draws enormous crowds. So count on Rove's disciples to suggest that there's something wrong with drawing big crowds.

I don't think it will work. Hilary Clinton tried the same strategy of suggesting that Obama was a crowd-pleasing empty suit. Obama proved too smart for that. His campaign, including his recent foreign trip, has shown that his talent is genuine.

But meantime, how about turning the strategy around? Obama's team should find the weakness in McCain's strengths as use them to attack.

I'm not clever enough to do it for them, but here are a couple of thoughts. What are McCain's strengths? Experience, of two kinds: Washington experience and military experience.

Well, the Washington experience should be easy to attack. Yes, McCain's served as a Senator for a long time and really knows Washington politics. But politicians have always attacked that as a bad thing, and it should be particularly easy to do that now. With 74% of people thinking that the country is going in the wrong direction, it should be easy to attack Washington experience as a liability -- Washington is what got us on the wrong track. So say that yes, McCain is highly experienced -- at the same old politics that got us in the mess we're in now. We need to turn the page and start fresh, so McCain's experience is bad, not good.

The military experience is perhaps a little trickier -- Obama doesn't want to look weak and doesn't want to make it easier for Republicans to push the line that Democrats don't understand that the war on terror is a military matter. But some appropriate attack could be made here too. We've lived for nearly 8 years under an administration that was overly adventurous and trigger-happy and that didn't understand that starting a war is serious business and shouldn't be done lightly. Do we want four more years of that? Do we want someone who's already beating the drum about going to war on Iran? With the country already war-weary, McCain's military experience could be suitably painted as a liability, not an advantage.

1 comment:

Anonymous said...

McCain's "military experience" is a series of things that happened to him -- nothing much that he did or that required great tactical or command talents.

Well, he did get into and through the Naval academy -- not a great accomplishment when his father was a second generation Naval Officer of the highest rank and saw to it that he did it.

He got shot down, but that's not exactly an accomplishment per se. In captivity, his experience was horrible, and included two failed suicide attempts. This raises a special "experience issue." Do we really want someone who has had a history of periods of suicidal depression to be Commander in Chief with his finger on the button?

Morover, John McCain missed much of the politico-military history of the USA during the Vietnam period, due to his incarceration. Few Americans of his age-group totally missed those lessons -- not even our senior military officers.

After he got out of Hanoi, he was one of our "heroes" but did not, despite that, rise in the military.

In his Senate career, he has dealt with military matters, but primarily budgetary ones.

He still considers the Iraq war as somsthing to be won -- just as his father maintained that the Vietmam war was going in out favor -- was winable.