Crushing an invaluable brand

CRUSHING AN INVALUABLE BRAND…. As any political observer surely recalls, it wasn’t too long ago that John McCain was the most popular politician in America. The national media, which McCain described as his “base,” not only adored him, but gave him the benefit of the doubt when he found it necessary to cynically flip-flop and move to the right.

During, and in the wake of, his 2000 campaign, McCain developed one of the best brands in politics. To know McCain was to think of the phrases his handlers had pushed into the culture, such as “straight-talk.”

When McCain began his descent into becoming a partisan hack, the political establishment didn’t want to believe it. He reversed course on all of the policy positions that made him interesting, but pundits still called him a “maverick.” He embraced far-right lunatics like Jerry Falwell, and the establishment dismissed it as understandable calculating.

But as John Heilemann explained in an insightful new piece, McCain kept pushing his luck, and ultimately destroyed the best brand in politics. Instead of a straight-talking maverick, everyone now sees “a liar, a fraud, and an opportunist with acute anger-management issues,” as McCain and his team have come “perilously close to losing control of his public image.”

[I]n the middle of the summer, the McCain campaign took a series of steps that appeared on their face to be at odds with the candidate’s gold-plated brand. In the interest of greater message discipline, his advisers eliminated his running back-of-the-bus (or front-of-the-plane) bullshit sessions with reporters. And they turned sharply negative in their approach to Obama, hammering him with a series of ads — seen by some as trivial and trivializing, by others as racially coded, and eventually by most as unexpectedly effective — focused on his status as a celebrity unqualified to be commander-in-chief. […]

[T]hen came September — and everything changed. The selection of Palin. The lipstick-pig imbroglio. The ad accusing Obama of supporting the teaching of sex education to kindergartners, along with a slew of other spots rife with distortions and fabrications. Perhaps it was the sheer number of such incidents, perhaps the depth of their mendacity. But the meme began to take hold in the press that the “old McCain” was dead. Or perhaps that he had never existed in the first place. “There was a mismatch between the way he was behaving and the narrative the press had bought into,” observes Just. “It made reporters wonder, ‘Have we been had?’ And when that question starts being asked, it’s a very bad place for a candidate to be.”

Fueling that questioning behind the scenes, it should be said, were countless professional Republicans — some who’d always regarded McCain as a fraud, others who believed in him all too much. Taken together, they gave the press a permission slip to question McCain’s authenticity and integrity. And as that skepticism began to take hold, it effectively doomed McCain’s maneuvers during the financial crisis (the suspension of his campaign, the threat to pull out of the debate) to be greeted with disdain and suspicion by the media. “By the time the financial crisis hit, we were past the tipping point,” says a national reporter who covers McCain. “Lipstick on a pig and sex ed were the last straw for some of McCain’s old hands and media allies. And because of this cynicism, he didn’t get the benefit of the doubt for his ‘suspension,’ and it was treated as the stunt it was.”

There’s been a lot of talk of late about whether McCain, win or lose in November, will regret how pathetic he became over the course of this campaign. I rather doubt it — he knew exactly what he was doing when he hired Karl Rove’s operation and deliberately abandoned his integrity for electoral gain.

John Weaver, McCain’s former chief strategist, told Heilemann months ago that the carefully-cultivated image may not be salvageable. “There is no brand in politics you can just put on the shelf, run a campaign totally contrary to it, and then take it down later and still expect people to believe it,” Weaver said.

I suspect that’s exactly what McCain expected. He’d developed a degree of credibility and good will, and thought he could simply reclaim it after lying and smearing his way to victory. By all appearances, he badly miscalculated.

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Steve Benen

Steve Benen is a producer at MSNBC's The Rachel Maddow Show. He was the principal contributor to the Washington Monthly's Political Animal blog from August 2008 until January 2012.