One school of thought out there is that the McCain campaign just has to let “McCain be McCain.” Mike Murphy said it yesterday in this New York Times story on McCain getting much needed assistance on his speaking. Peggy Noonan wrote a column entitled “Let McCain be McCain.” There are a bunch of problems with this.
First, if he had his druthers, all he would talk about is Iraq and national security and he’s simply not going to win without something compelling to say on domestic issues. Second, if he had his druthers he’d probably try to run the campaign as a New Hampshire primary writ large, which is a formula for failure. Third, he’s not quite the great impromptu campaigner he’s made out to be. We all have this image of McCain circa 2000. But that was eight years ago. He’s never going to be that fresh and exciting again (and let’s not forget that at the end of the day he couldn’t help self-destructing his campaign). Noonan quotes this passage from a New York Times article for the proposition that McCain is full of madcap hilarity:
“[He] volunteered that Brooke Buchanan, his spokeswoman who was seated nearby and rolling her eyes, ‘has a lot of her money hidden in the Cayman Islands’ and that she earned it by ‘dealing drugs.’ Previously, Mr. McCain had identified Ms. Buchanan as ‘Pat Buchanan’s illegitimate daughter,’ ‘bipolar,’ ‘a drunk,’ ‘someone with a lot of boyfriends,’ and ‘just out of Betty Ford.’”
But this nearly exhausts McCain’s comic repertoire and it’s all gags at least eight years old. If you hear McCain call someone a “drunk” once, it might be funny, but not repeated over and over, which is why Steve Schmidt used to say a “willingness to laugh at the same jokes” was an entry qualification on the Straight Talk Express.
All that said, I agree that McCain needs to be McCain in the sense that his campaign has to find a theme that fits him. It shouldn’t be that hard–roughly something like “a fighter for us.” Then, it has to force McCain to do the things to reinforce the theme and win a general election. In that respect, this post seems right on to me. McCain has many advantages as a political figure. He’s a serious guy with a lot of experience, with independent reformist credentials he actually went out and earned (for better or worse). But he’s not a seat-of-the-pants political genius, at least not enough of one to win a general election against Barack Obama. He needs a campaign; let’s hope Bill Kristol is right that he realizes this.