Monday, March 12, 2012

Thoughts on "Game Change"

After thinking I had avoided the HBO Movie "Game Change," about the 2008 Presidential Election (and particularly the aftermath of Sarah Palin's entry into the race), I was flipping through the channels on Sunday got sucked into the replay.  Damn.

Now, for those of you who aren't political or TV junkies, the story of "Game Change" is thus - desperate McCain and his staff pick Sarah Palin as McCain's running mate, and Palin is such a disaster that even McCain's high level staffers won't vote for the ticket (for fear of putting the former Alaska Governor anywhere near the White House).  McCain loses to Obama.

As far as a movie goes, I think some of the criticisms of the writing and the character development are fair - few if any of the characters show any development movie-wise. That said, some of the performances were dead-on.  Julianne Moore's portrayal of Sarah Palin felt much deeper than Tina Fey's impersonation (obviously), and I was left somewhat understanding why so many people were (and still are) absolutely entralled with the Governor, despite her obvious foibles.

That said, and I hate to defend Sarah Palin (who's acceptance speech at the GOP National Convention inspired me to give money to the Obama campaign), but the movie does her some disservice.  As horrific as a VP choice as she was, the selection of Sarah Palin was not the reason John McCain lost the Presidency.  Rather, her selection, and the ensuing aftermath, were symptomatic of McCain's dysfunctional campaign.

Look, every campaign, no matter what level, is about a core message, the central campaign narrative.  It can be as simple as "Vote for Me!" or, it can be a dominant theme or themes.  Think of Obama's 2008 campaign, and one word comes to mind - Change.  All presidential campaigns need some kind of narrative, but McCain could never find out what his narrative should be.  First he attacked Obama's lack of experience (probably the most dangerous attack, as Obama had to put Biden on the ticket), and then undermined his attack when he picked Sarah Palin (who had less experience than Obama and is about half as smart).  Then McCain practically worshipped "Joe the Plumber" (who is neither a plumber, nor named Joe), and then suspended his campaign to deal with the economic crisis, and lurched one way to another, and another, trying to find some kind of talisman to defeat Obama.

Now, the McCain campaign dysfunction may have been partially the result of Obama's stunning rise.  After all, few DC insiders thought Obama had a shot at winning the nomination.  And so, McCain's strategy was largely designed around running against Hillary Clinton.  Who better to be McCain's running mate than the first Democrat to condemn Bill Clinton for the Lewinsky matter?  When Obama took the nomination instead, McCain and his campaign had no idea how to beat him.

Sarah Palin's selection was a symptom of that desperation.  Not only did her selection completely tank a very strong attack on Obama, but the campaign never looked into her background, and never spent the time preparing her for the role. As a result, everything was done haphazardly on the fly.  Of course, the campaign had no idea that Palin needed the level of hand-holding that she did, but that was something they should have known well before selecting her.  To their detriment, they also had no idea that she would be as good as she was on the stump either.  If Palin wasn't as charismatic, McCain would've lost by an even larger margin.

I also see reverberations of the 2008 campaign in the 2012 campaign.  Like 2008, Republicans and conservatives tend to be utterly focused on Obama's strangeness - he's an African American with a Muslim-sounding name - to stick with Palin's "paling around with terrorists" line.  The other weird attack is something about teleprompters - as if a guy who graduated at the top of his class from Harvard Law School is an idiot.  Those attacks are complete duds.  

No, if I was the GOP nominee, I wouldn't attack Obama's intelligence (really, really high), or his strangeness, but I would attack his normalcy.  He's a 50 year old man who's obsessed with sports (probably more so than any other recent President), plays poker, and loves to golf.  In other words, he is completely and utterly normal.  That is where I would attack - because he is so normal, he is infected with the conventional way of doing things, and failed to go hard enough against the banks, or cut taxes or whatever.  Attack him for failing to think outside the box.  Luckily, I don't see any Republican, save maybe Newt Gingrich, being able to pull off this attack.  

And, I think if you look at the last few Presidents - Obama, Clinton and Bush - you see the opponents going for the obvious attack rather than the best attack.  This was especially true with Democrats and Bush - we kept pushing the Bush-as-idiot line when we should have pushed the Bush-is-an-uncaring-asshole line.  Anyway, when you look at the story of "Game Change," yes, Sarah Palin was a disaster of a VP candidate, but she probably helped McCain more than she hurt him. 

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