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.

Jump to comments

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

Get Today's Top Stories in Your Inbox (preview)

A Fascinating Short Film About the Multiverse

If life is a series of infinite possibilities, what does it mean to be alive?

Elsewhere on the web

Join the Discussion

After you comment, click Post. If you’re not already logged in you will be asked to log in or register. blog comments powered by Disqus


The Death of Film

You'll never hear the whirring sound of a projector again.


How to Hunt With Poison Darts

A Borneo hunter explains one of his tribe's oldest customs: the art of the blowpipe


A Delightful, Pixar-Inspired Cartoon

An action figure and his reluctant sidekick trek across a kitchen in search of treasure.


I Am an Undocumented Immigrant

"I look like a typical young American."


Why Did I Study Physics?

Using hand-drawn cartoons to explain an academic passion