Wednesday, July 16, 2008

McCain's Strategy: Stupid Or Ultra Smart?

At first I thought John McCain has lost it. But now I'm not so sure. I'm referring to his behavior and policy stances after securing the Republican nomination, and particularly after Barack Obama became the official Democratic nominee.

Every veteran of two party politics should know about the "race to the center" strategy. This is also formally taught in introductory game theory courses in the economics department of the University of Chicago, where Obama's advisor Austan Goolsbee is a professor.

The theory here is for mercenary politicians to take more extreme right or left positions during the primaries to win support of their respective bases, and then each moves to the center to try to win most voters in the general election. By "mercenary politicians" is meant those who are simply focused on winning, and untethered to internal commitments or prior promises.

Obama has all this down pat. That's why you saw him gallop towards supporting the death penalty even for some non-homicidal crimes; courting evangelicals; qualifying troop withdrawal commitments in Iraq; lecturing blacks on personal responsibility; and so on. He may ease off the pace of transition a bit because of left-wing reactions, but his base is pretty much in the bag and you know where he's heading. Even Jesse Jackson's much publicised private diatribe against Obama actually helps drive some undecided whites into Obama's fold.

But what about McCain? He seems firmly stuck on the right of even where he has been in the past several years on issues ranging from (a lack of) women's reproductive rights to taxes to healthcare coverage. Moreover, he flubs his speeches and country names, and is the anti-thesis of Obama's eloquence. He's well behind Obama in the opinion polls. So he seems to be following a really dumb and ineffective game plan, right?

That's possible, but there's an alternative explanation. After all McCain has some of Karl Rove's closest associates advising him. Obama is a formidable opponent but one thing that can work for McCain is Hillary's disaffected supporters who can either vote McCain or not vote at all.

Obama can heal the divisions simply by taking on Hillary as his running mate, and though I had my doubts it looks like she's amenable to this. The only thing is, with all the bitterness during the primaries process, he's apt to choose her only if he feels he needs her. But what if he were confident that he could win without her? Then he'll choose someone else, and that's the only way for McCain to beat him.

If that's the calculation then McCain should let Obama get substantially ahead in the polls till Obama chooses his running mate, someone other than Hillary. Only after that should McCain turn to more centrist themes and go full throttle in his campaign. His earlier rightist stance will endear him to the Republican base who contribute to his campaign. This base will also be more understanding of his late shift to the middle if he's lagging in the polls and "has" to adjust positions to catch up with Obama. Also, McCain's tepid campaign style and listless speeches earlier on will lower expectations, which will make it easier for him to beat them in the all-important debates and final run-up to the elections.

So back to the question: Are McCain and his team being absurdly foolish or brilliantly clever? Their subsequent actions, say after the Democratic convention, may supply the answer. At this time it is hard to tell.