Mavericks

In October 2008 I left a blog comment on Nate Silver’s 538 blog, expressing some things I thought I’d learned from watching the death spiral of the McCain campaign. It seemed to strike a nerve with a few people who sent it around and republished it. Here’s the original comment:

Setting aside momentarily the campaigns’ respective political programs, as well as the aspects that relate to the candidates’ personal fitness for office, it is interesting to reflect on what the campaigns’ structures teach us about the next President’s ability to run one of the largest and most complex bureaucracies on Earth.


The contrast has been stark. The Obama campaign has been characterized throughout by thoughtful strategic planning, disciplined execution, and nimble reactions in dealing with the inevitable mistakes. They don’t fight each other and they don’t leak. They have assembled a huge volunteer Get-Out-The-Vote (GOTV) organization, and managed it with balletic coordination and precision. They have brought effective, innovative approaches to the entire enterprise, from fundraising to media to personal contact.

The McCain organization, by contrast, has been, to put it charitably, hapless. Between bouts of infighting and back-stabbing, they apparently have never found the time to set out overarching strategic goals for a campaign whose strategy has bounced around like a marble in a blender. Their execution has been appalling. They can’t keep a message in the air without one of their own senior people stepping all over it. Their GOTV is a joke — the national office didn’t even bother to appoint state coordinators until July, and then only under threat of revolt from state GOP organizations who saw nothing happening. The candidate contradicts himself almost daily. The campaign appears fixated on locating a magic bullet — a stunt that will change the game. It has hit on several (Palin, campaign suspension, wacky debate formats, Plumbers, Muslims…), but none of them has worked, and none have taught them that a stunt is no replacement for a disciplined campaign.

What is weird about this is that the GOP wrote the book on disciplined (if divisive and amoral) campaigning. Karl Rove’s machine is still there, and all that expertise still exists, but McCain ignored all of it.

And that seems to be the trouble with the McCain campaign: John McCain is an incompetent politician. He has an adolescent, highly personal view of politics, according to which he doesn’t need organization or strategy, because, well, he’s John McCain! A war hero! A Maverick (TM)! All he needs to do is let people get a clear view of him, and they’ll flock to the polls and vote for him. The rest is boring detail. He’s losing because he’s being out-organized and out-hustled, and he doesn’t even realize it, and probably never will.

That term, “Maverick”, tells us a good deal about McCain’s political skills, if we trouble to analyze it. In politics, a maverick is someone with no following, and who is part of no larger movement. A maverick politician accomplishes nothing, because political accomplishment requires team effort, negotiation, compromise, and leadership. Someone who spends his political careeer on his own is capable of none of the above. To a politician, “Maverick” is one of those self-esteem-protecting terms, like “Big-Boned”, or “Vertically-Challenged”. You call a politician a “Maverick” when you want to reassure him that he’s a worthy human being despite his professional ineptitude.

Running an effective Presidential campaign is no guarantee that one will govern well (as the last eight years have reminded us). But it seems perfectly clear that the inability to coordinate even an adequate campaign probably guarantees that the organizational skills required to run the Federal government effectively are lacking. The election campaign is the first test of management and leadership that all Presidents must pass. Obama has passed it with ease. McCain has flunked it more spectacularly than any candidate in recent memory. He won’t be President. That is fortunate for the country, and for the World.

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