The cardinal rule of politics states that you define yourself before others blemish your blank canvas, and similarly, that you define your opponents before they paint indelible portraits of themselves. Each presidential election, the axiom’s acolytes fire a barrage of accusations at the opposing candidate in an effort to disrupt his budding narrative. This dynamic has resurfaced in the early stages of the Obama-McCain duel, with each side fervently seeking to cast the other as out-of-touch hypocrites touting preposterous policies.
First Read picks up on the race to define, elaborating on a point made by David Broder:
With Obama so unknown still, is it good for him to be ducking town hall meetings and deciding to fund his campaign privately? The more he does things that give the appearance of just another politician, doesn’t that undercut the delicate nature of his fresh face image? It’s the talking point of the weekend by McCain surrogates, and it could be one that’s effective. The Clinton campaign never could make the “he’s just another craven politician” tag stick, because Clinton had the whole pot-kettle problem. But with McCain’s reform image engrained with many voters — even if it’s been dented by some reversals of his own — Obama could see this tactic used against more effectively now than it was during the primary.
Leave aside Obama’s brand issues for now; that’s a subject for future posts. Instead, consider the strength of the foundation supporting McCain’s reputation. Is the senator’s reform image entrenched in the electorate’s mind, as First Read indicates? Or, more likely, is this theory yet another Beltway concoction that crumbles when confronted with the bludgeon of fact?
How did First Read arrive at this assumption? It sure sounds like speculation, and we’ve seen the success rate of unfounded hypotheses during this election. Take the “Democrats are fatally divided” myth, a fallacy that continued to propagate despite contradictory poll data. Or, pull out from that dusty drawer the Clinton invincibility storyline, which endured numerous blows before detonating post-Iowa.
Someone has already researched the McCain brand’s stickiness – the results were the polar opposite of First Read’s fictional, but still conventional wisdom:
Advisers to Mr. Obama said their research suggested that Mr. McCain, notwithstanding his high profile in American politics for more than a decade, was not well known to many voters.