Tuesday, October 14, 2008

John McCain's Maverickitis

Last week was a bad week for John McCain... and not just John McCain. The financial system was spinning out of control and McCain was attacking Bill Ayers.

It was the wrong message at the wrong time. The country was sizing up future leaders and McCain was carping.

Obama was proposing higher taxes, less free trade, more unions, and more litigation. Economists, CEOs, and investors seemed to know that these policies would be bad for the economy.

The problem was: even when McCain had interesting policies, he did not seem willing to step forward and defend them. So it looked like he had nothing to say.

As I said in my September 15 and 24 posts, among others, given the choice between the wrong policies and no policies, the nation will tend to go with something rather than nothing.

Today, McCain finally seems to have gotten the message. He proposed a series of policies that are starkly different from those of Obama, based as they are on stimulating economic growth rather than sharing the wealth.

McCain has a point: Obama's plan to reduce taxes is really welfare in disguise. McCain is offering economic growth and jobs, not a return to welfare.

In principle, it sounds like an argument McCain should relish. The problem is: it might well be too little, too late. It may be that McCain became too attached to his maverick persona, to the point that it drowned out his message.

Being a maverick is not the same as providing leadership. At the second debate McCain's proposal was: I am a maverick and I am going to shake up Washington.

In fact, things had already been very seriously shaken up. People are looking for stability and a calm temperament. At the second debate, Obama was more calm than McCain.

McCain's message has been: my persona is better than your persona, and my character is better than your character.

Surely, character counts; without it no one will be able to rely on a candidate's willingness to keep his word. And yet, neither maverick or character are policies, any more than hope and change are.

Maverick and character are assertions of self at a time when the country wants to know what politicians are going to do to restore the sinking economy. It was not a-- Hey, look at me!--moment.

Maverick is not a brand; it is not political high concept. It tells you nothing about what McCain might do as president. It merely suggests that he will be inconsistent and erratic.

By standard definition, a maverick is a stray, a loner, a lost soul, a motherless calf, someone who is not part of the herd or the group.

With a little positive spin you can make a maverick into a rebel or an independent spirit. Spin it as far as you wish and you will not make a maverick into a leader.

That is what the country saw when McCain decided to suspend his campaign and rush back to Washington to help broker a bailout deal between Congress and the White House.

You can say that it was a more responsible position than Obama's-- Call me if you need me-- approach. Unfortunately, it did not work.

McCain was claiming a leadership role. Unfortunately, he had not bothered to check on whether his troops were following him. They were not.

Obama seemed to know that no one would follow him, so he just kept quiet.

You would think that the first lesson they teach at leadership academy is: don't get too far out in front of your troops. If you do, you look like you are posturing, not leading. At worst you have made yourself an easy target.

Where a maverick can fashion his persona by separating himself from the group, a leader must bring the group together around a set of policy proposals. Today, McCain seems to have figured this out. The trouble is: it may be too little, too late.

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