Two myths that matter

Washington Post White House correspondent Chris Cillizza lists five (false) myths that have already sprung up about the election, of which the last two are the most important for Republicans to examine:

  • A Republican candidate could have won the presidency this year.
  • McCain made a huge mistake in picking Sarah Palin.

Now, on the first, I hate to say that anything is impossible, but it was clear from the beginning that “Bush fatigue” created a 40-mph headwind for the GOP, and Cillizza quantifies this factor:

In the national exit poll, more than seven in 10 voters said that they disapproved of the job Bush was doing; not surprisingly, Obama resoundingly won that group, 67 percent to 31 percent. But here’s an even more stunning fact: While 7 percent of the exit-poll sample strongly approved of the job Bush was doing, a whopping 51 percent strongly disapproved. Obama won those strong disapprovers 82 percent to 16 percent.

The intense loathing of Bush among the electorate — even among many conservative Republicans — is something you’re not going to perceive if your head is stuck inside a Sean Hannity echo chamber. Bush is the least-popular president since Nixon.

Yet, in my “never say never” mode of trying to figure out some way the Republicans could win, I felt that McCain missed a perfect opportunity to create distance between himself and the president when he jumped in to support the $700 billion bailout. The bailout was not conservative, it was unpopular and it was morally wrong. If Maverick had voiced a “libertarian populist” critique of the bailout, it might have — might have — made a difference politically, but it certainly would have sparked a debate where he would have been on the side of the angels.

Now, as to the Palin pick, Cillizza is correct that she energized “cultural conservatives” and was a net plus to the GOP ticket, but he injects some confusion into the argument with this:

[T]he data appear somewhere close to conclusive that Palin did little to help . . . McCain’s attempts to reach out to independents and Democrats.

Here it is important to distinguish conceptually between the effect of (a) Palin herself, (b) Palin as presented by Team Maverick, and (c) Palin as perceived through the media lens.

Palin could have been a figure appealing to independents and Democrats, if Team Maverick hadn’t insisted on hiding her from reporters for weeks after her selection as running mate. It was that boneheaded decision which did the most to drive the media negativity toward Palin, and it was the media negativity that prevented her from having crossover appeal.

As someone who is both a conservative and a journalist with 22 years in the business, I began complaining on Sept. 2 (three days after Palin was announced) that the McCain campaign was mishandling her media strategy.

When the campaign released a statement about Bristol Palin’s pregnancy, I suggested — in a fit of paternal indignation — that if Bristol were my daughter, I’d have put her and Levi the Baby Daddy into a press conference and let them explain themselves. That sounds crazy, and maybe it was, but direct confrontation is often the best public-relations strategy. When you’re dealing with a story so big that it is obviously going to blow sky-high no matter what you do, you might as well call a press conference and meet it head-on. (Even if you’re going to lie: “I did not have sexual relations with that woman, Monica Lewinsky!”)

The McCain campaign sent Palin to do high-stakes interviews with Charlie Gibson and Katie Couric, before Palin had held even one press conference with the reporters on the trail. That is so wrong that I can’t even begin to explain how wrong it is, and whoever made that decision was suffering from the worst case of recto-cranial inversion in the history of media relations.

I don’t care how much you hate “the media,” the poor faceless schlubs — wire-service and newspaper reporters — who are out there covering the campaign on a daily basis ought to get at least an occasional press conference with the candidates. I’m convinced that a lot of the negativity toward Palin was a result of the resentment felt by ordinary reporters over their lack of access. Palin is a likeable personality, she started out in the TV business, and if she had been allowed to deal directly with the press, the result would have been a lot better than sending out idiot “spokesmen” like Tucker Bounds to speak on her behalf.

So the fact that Palin did not make much headway with independent voters in this campaign (a) is not necessarily her fault, and (b) doesn’t prove she can’t reach independent voters in a future campaign. Since the election, she’s held press conferences, handled them well, and made it clear that she “gets it” in terms of what the McCain campaign did wrong.

(Cross-posted at The Other McCain.)

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