The Absence of Policy

One of the many fascinating things about Robert Draper's Times Magazine story on the McCain campaign is what isn't included in its account of the attempts to brand (and rebrand, and rebrand) John McCain's candidacy: Namely, any real discussion of policy. From Draper's account, the McCain campaign staff has gone around and around trying to figure out how to sell their candidate - as a fighter! as an experienced leader! as a maverick! etc. - but hardly ever seemed to have spent much time thinking about how these narratives would mesh with or be reinforced by the actual policy agenda the campaign was advancing.

Now, obviously Draper's piece isn't the whole story of the campaign, and obviously he was focusing on the strategy apparatus, rather than the policy apparatus. (Douglas Holtz-Eakin doesn't make an appearance in the piece.) And yes, of course, those of us with wonkish inclinations tend to dramatically overestimate the impact that actual policy choices, as opposed to narratives and symbolism, have on the outcome of presidential elections. But I don't think it's a coincidence that McCain's successful sales pitch to GOP primary voters was built around a specific policy - namely, his support for the surge. And I suspect that his unsuccessful general-election sales pitches have suffered badly from being untethered to specific popular policy proposals that the candidate himself was interested in defending. Think about 2000: George W. Bush's brand identity, if you will, as a "compassionate conservative" dovetailed perfectly with his near-obsessive focus on education policy and his promise to work across the aisle on a prescription drugs bill. Whereas the McCain camp's stabs at crafting a brand identity only beg the question: He's a maverick ... who'll do what? He's a bipartisan reformer ... but what reforms will he deliver? Etc.

To the extent McCain's policy agenda has been branded in the public mind, Obama has done it for him - with a series of health-care ads that are among the most dishonest of this cycle, but among the most ubiquitous and effective as well. Meanwhile, Obama has aggressively branded himself as the guy who'll cut taxes for 95 percent of Americans. Would the Democratic nominee be winning without these successful policy-related gambits? Probably. But they certainly haven't hurt.

Ross Douthat is a former writer and editor at The Atlantic.

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