Tuesday, October 28, 2008

Know Your Audience: The Ineptness of the McCain Campaign

The National Law Journal is probably the most widely circulated periodical in the legal world, reaching many tens of thousands of attorneys every week (at least in theory . . . . it has a tendency to stack up and get ignored by busy junior associates). But it is read almost exclusively by attorneys, which are hardly what you would term a core Republican demographic.

Well, it seems that John McCain was asked to write a piece in the NLJ describing his views on "the rule of law, the federal court system, judicial appointees and priorities for the U.S. Department of Justice." The piece is, to say the least, underwhelming. It begins promisingly enough, though:

Our nation needs a new direction — different from the path pursued by the current administration, and also different from the failed liberal policies of the past proposed by Senator Barack Obama. We face enormous challenges and you, the voters, deserve more than platitudes. I feel it is my duty as a candidate to tell you specifically how my presidency would improve our government and our country.

Unfortunately, "platitudes" are exactly what we get, and the "different path" from the Bush Administration turns out to be the Bush Administration on steroids, with one exception.

Rather than discussing "the rule of law, the federal court system, judicial appointees and priorities for the U.S. Department of Justice" in any kind of depth, what we get are vacuous platitudes about "strict constructionist" vs. "liberal activist" judges, counterterrorist operations (but not even the slightest mention of civil liberties issues implicated thereby), and the need to double down on the War on Drugs, not to mention the Nixon-era claim that Dem-appointed judges will "coddle criminals."

To be sure, there is a brief, one-sentence mention of the need to de-politicize the Department of Justice, but beyond that, McCain's commentary reads like a Mitt Romney stump speech rather than an attempt to convince thousands of overly-educated, mostly left-of-center professionals to vote for him. In other words - McCain is writing for the "base," even when the only audience is about as far from the "base" as you can get.

I am not saying that McCain should have written a column that does not reflect his actual viewpoints or that throws the Republican "base" under the bus. I am simply amazed that he made absolutely no attempt to explain, in detail, why he thinks he would do a better job at, say, appointing judges but instead simply throws around buzz words like "strict constructionist" and "liberal activist" that both make most attorneys' eyes glaze over (because they are meaningless terms) and gratuitously insult judges as a group, who are quite well regarded within the legal profession.

For instance, would it have been so difficult for McCain or, more likely, his ghost writer for legal affairs, to put forward an honest and meaningful description of his judicial philosophy? If he sincerely wants to make a push for increased enforcement of banking rules and tighter banking regulations, couldn't he have discussed how he wishes to do this, particularly in light of the dramatic effect of Sarbanes-Oxley on the legal profession? Simply put, McCain's piece demonstrates a complete lack of seriousness or intellectual rigor about legal issues, two traits one needs to display in order to get the support of any well-educated group interested in a set of issues.

This isn't just a function of McCain having disagreements with the vast majority of the legal profession - it's about him nominally seeking our support while refusing to engage us on terms that have actual meaning to us, instead addressing us on terms better suited for convention speeches. In other words - it's not just bad policy, it's bad politics. And therein lies the rub. Here we are, just one week from Election Day, and McCain is still focusing almost all of his campaigning on mobilizing the "base," even when he is not speaking to the "base." To be sure, a Republican would have little chance of winning in the current economic and anti-war climate no matter what; but for someone who was always portrayed as a "moderate," whatever that means, McCain has been forced to spend the last 7-8 months trying to convince the "base" that he's one of them. That's not a good way to compete in an election.

(via Memeorandum).