June 10, 2008
A Third Option For McCainBy Lee Cary
When both options available are problematic, create a third one. That's what the McCain campaign can do to find a way for him to communicate without delivering a prepared speech.
McCain's staff acknowledges that he's not a great platform speaker.
We know there's a problem when a "McCain advisor," speaking on the condition of anonymity -- a foreboding development in-and-of itself, refers to the comparison of McCain's June 3 speech to Obama's that same day as "not good."
The problem is exacerbated by apparent denial within the McCain camp. TIME magazine quoted GOP ad consultant Alex Castellanos as saying,
Literally, he's right. Figuratively, he's wrong, and very wrong.
The entire campaign is one Message Communication Contest on a grand scale. Speech-making is, obviously, a basic, time-tested platform from which to communicate. And McCain's deficiencies in that venue will inhibit his ability to communicate his message to the voters.
If the opposing team has a great defensive line, you call running plays only as often as needed to set up your real strength -- the passing game.
McCain Campaign's Solution
McCain invited Obama to join him in the arena where he, McCain, feels most comfortable -- the town hall meeting. McCain's people obviously think he has an edge in that setting. But is that advantage likely to be as great in McCain's favor as Obama's platform skills are for him? No.
But what if the opposing team has a defensive secondary that's capable of rising to the level of your passing game?
The Obama Campaign hasn't rejected the town hall offer. They may agree to a few joint town hall appearances where Obama takes questions from common folk. Doing so would convey magnanimity and confidence on his part, even if his subsequent performance turned out to be slightly inferior to McCain's.
No matter how Obama performs, the MSM will declare, after the event, that he kept pace with McCain on McCain's chosen turf. Advantage Obama. So all things considered, there's little risk for Obama.
In any regard, Obama will continue addressing large audiences throughout the campaign. If you got it, flaunt it. Then, when his nomination acceptance speech in Denver comes on the anniversary of Martin Luther King's "I Have A Dream" speech, the MSM will deem it the seminal event of this entire silly season. Drudge will run a split screen of Obama and Martin Luther King with the caption: "45 Years Later -- The Dream Comes True."
So what's McCain to do to better communicate his message?
He can change the game and take...
A Third Option
A third way would not depend on Obama. It would depend on McCain's propensity for "straight talk," even though it can get him into trouble for references to "one hundred years" and the like. The Third Way would offer McCain an opportunity to look presidential.
Ask yourself this: What communication setting is most representative of the Office of President of the United States of America? Where can the holder of the Oval Office most naturally and consistently look presidential?
Is it in the seated address to the nation from the desk in the Oval office? (See Jimmy Carter in his sweater.)
The announcement made from the White House Rose Garden?
How about the one-on-one interview in the White House Green Room?
Or, maybe the FDR-like "fireside chats" that Obama promises to have with us when he's president? (Wait, wouldn't that add carbon to the atmosphere?)
The answer to all is "no."
The communication setting most symbolic of the Office of the President is the Press Conference in front of the White House press corps. Complete with Helen Thomas, a squatter there since the Grant administration. Official seal in the background. A brief statement -- not a speech -- read by the President, followed by the feeding frenzy from the White House reporters talking all at once, holding the president to account. It's high drama with presidential credibility on the line.
While that's precisely the pressure-packed setting that Obama's handlers have studiously avoided for their candidate, it's one McCain seems to enjoy. Remember when he barked at the New York Times reporter who posed a gotcha question on his airplane? The ABC News headline was "McCain Loses Cool..." Only in the minds of the criticism sensitive media is push-back seen as losing cool. But the exchange worked to McCain's advantage.
McCain's campaign wants to put him with Obama in a setting similar to the press conference, but one held before civilians. Why there? Reporters are the true opponents. Most are ex-officio members of Obama's campaign staff. Town hall meetings are, in comparison, Bridge tournaments.
Look, if you want to be King of the Jungle, you walk fearlessly into where the lions feed.
The televised debates have degenerated into questions from talking snow men, biased ringers, and puff journalists. What's next? Asking the pending leader of the Western world, "As a child, what was your favorite bedtime story?"
Would hard-nosed press conferences be a risk for McCain? Sure. So what? He likes risk. He flew jet fighters in combat! He's still the fighter jock who welcomes the dog fight. Most importantly, the setting would give him an opportunity to display a key Presidential requirement: Clarity and courage under fire. McCain has promised to be a more open and accessible Commander in Chief. So let's see him in action, now.
He might even be able to direct some hard questions toward Obama through the press corps. Imagine McCain closing his press conference saying,
Barack Obama is hesitant to risk vulnerability in an unscripted ad hoc communication setting. He's the master of the teleprompter. And with a couple of debate exceptions, he has eluded the hard questions.
If McCain goes full-monty-vulnerable before the press corps, could the pressure on Obama to follow suit be far behind?