I generally dislike backbiting stories like this one in the Politico fronting every consultant's gripe about the McCain campaign. Stories like this tend to conveniently appear when a candidate is behind in the polls, to be replaced by paeans to the infinite wisdom of the campaign if the candidate pulls slightly ahead. Most of the time, day-to-day movement in the polls has nothing to do with these tactical shifts. McCain running a lean campaign and eschewing the BC'04 organizational model can appear either foolhardy or forward-thinking depending on what poll you're looking at. This isn't exactly helpful.
What's more difficult and necessary is developing a coherent gameplan for what the campaign needs to do better that applies in both good times and bad. Just because the polls tighten, that doesn't mean all is well with the world and the campaign can go back to what it's been doing.
Policy rollouts seem to happen in a vacuum. McCain seemingly refuses to take on the elephant in the room, the Bush White House, and develop a coherent narrative for how he'd be different other than more press conferences. Though close observers can tell you the differences, regular voters couldn't tell you since McCain has yet to strategically display anger at some of the missed opportunities of the last eight years (spending, Katrina, Iraq, etc.). The media and the voters get conflict and contrast, not politely worded speeches. We have yet to see any from McCain directed at Bush. For a candidate who faces a 3.63 to 1 press deficit, this kind of attention-grabbing strategy is critical.
It seems also that McCain was helped by his very narrow path to the nomination in the primaries. Then, it was clear what he should talk about because those were the only things he could talk about. And those were mostly spending and the surge.
In the primaries, McCain was always the most disciplined candidate about aligning his personal narrative with what needed to be done to win the election. But given a wider playing field and several different paths to victory, McCain can't seem to decide which to embrace. It's sort of reminiscent of his pre-implosion days, when everything was a scattershot "message of the week" with the economy one week, immigration the next, followed by Iraq.
Though base Republicans might not like it, McCain must be the maverick-reformer-fighter who is shooting the breeze off-message on the back of the bus. I think the campaign is actually more hung up about this than they need to be. Yes, the Republican base didn't like this McCain in 2000. But guess what? They are now bought in, and they like losing a whole lot less. Any strategy that will make McCain look like more of a winner will bring Republicans along, even if it's outwardly less conservative. (This is an analytical point, not necessarily a wish.)
McCain seems to get at this indirectly by attacking Obama as a conventional politician. But "a different kind of politics" is not actually the Obama brand. Obama has actually been pivoting to a safe message of partisan change from the Bush years -- less "Change We Can Believe In" and more "Change That Works for You." McCain often makes contrasts to the hypocrisy of Obama's old reformist message -- without reintroducing the general electorate to his own reformer status in a systematic way.
Message wise, McCain seems to be paralyzed by indecision between multiple different ways to get at Obama -- is he a phony? a naif? too liberal? There has been nothing as disciplined as the Kerry flip flopper meme.
The body language I hear from the campaign is that Obama will not be defeated on issues, but on attributes, mostly stuff like the Clark kerfuffle when they can scuff the other side up with their own hypocrisy.
I'm a big fan of attributes and meta-narratives as the centerpiece of campaign strategy, but those attributes must be tied to some semblance of a winning position on the issue landscape. And especially in an election year, a candidate's advocacy for a specific issue position can change the dynamics of the issue for the better. So, in 2004, Bush's personal decisiveness contrasted with Kerry's indecisiveness in a time of war. That message was not introduced in a vacuum.
McCain must decide to engage on the issue landscape and win a key battle on it in some fashion, either by outright winning or by bringing it close enough that McCain's reputation can seal the deal. If McCain appears out of synch with the issue landscape, none of his leadership attributes will matter.
The issue I keep coming back to is Iraq. Why isn't McCain telling people that he is the key reason why things are turning around in Iraq? His decisive support for the surge was a key part of his message in the primaries, but has been nonexistent in the general.
This may seem like an odd issue on which to engage. Iraq is supposed to be toxic. And yet McCain has repeatedly engaged on it, most recently in challenging Obama to go to Iraq with him.
Bringing things back to the surge would actually allow McCain to trash the incompetence, etc. of the previous Iraq strategy, aligning himself with most voters. But by elevating the issue, he'd also be performing a public service -- aligning public support for the war with the partisan divide, hence increasing it, and getting the message out about the improving situation on the ground. At a minimum, an effort like this, even if it fell short, would render a rapid withdrawal under an Obama administration politically untenable.
The surge also happens to be a remarkable testament to McCain's judgment and his aptitude to be Commander-in-Chief. Though energy might be a more profitable issue in some respects, I don't know that McCain has room to get the contrast he needs on it given his past opposition to things like ANWR. McCain can get an election winning contrast on Iraq if he can use his positioning to improve the underlying optics of how the public perceives the issue.