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It's Not Going to Be About the Issues

It's Not Going to Be About the Issues

By Tom Bevan - September 9, 2008

Last week McCain campaign manager Rick Davis was taken to task by the Obama campaign for stating the obvious. "This election is not about issues," Davis told the Washington Post. "This election is about a composite view of what people take away from these candidates."

Davis's comment is true about all campaigns, of course, but especially this one. This year's contest features two insurgent candidates whose campaigns are built around themes anchored largely in their biographies.

Barack Obama presents himself as a Washington outsider and post-partisan, post-racial unifier who offers to change politics and the culture of government as we know it.

John McCain presents himself as an experienced public servant who has consistently put country above all else, and with his choice of Sarah Palin for Vice-President McCain has pivoted to his credentials as a fighter and a political maverick who will bring his own brand of change to Washington.

While issues do matter, at its most fundamental level the race is a battle between the narratives of these two men and which campaign can do a more effective job of framing the choice in November as a referendum.

The Obama campaign wants to cast November 4th as a referendum on the last eight years under George W. Bush. Eighty percent of Americans feel the country is on the wrong track and McCain offers "more of the same," they argue.

The McCain campaign, on the other hand, wants November 4th to be a referendum on Barack Obama. He's a political celebrity with little experience, few accomplishments, questionable associations and no record of leadership, they say.

Whichever of these frames proves more powerful with the public will win the election. Two months from Election Day, McCain's narrative appears to be the stronger of the two and is resonating more with the public - at least for the moment.

Consider the following data from the most recent USA Today/Gallup survey taken after the conclusion of the Republican National Convention. President Bush's approval rating in the poll stands at a dismal 33%, and 63% of those surveyed are concerned that John McCain would "pursue policies too similar to those of the current president." That is clear cut evidence the public recognizes and is receptive to the central premise of Obama's framing of the choice in November.

Yet the same poll shows that in the last two weeks McCain almost completely erased a 19-point deficit to Obama on the question of who would do a better job handling the economy. These gains come despite the fact - as the Obama camp was quick to point out - McCain spent little to no time during that period talking about specific economic issues other than to point out a few broad contrasts (McCain says he will lower taxes while Obama will raise them, McCain will drill in pursuit of energy independence while Obama refuses).

As we head into the final 60 days of the campaign, the next crucial phase of the race will be the debates. These well scripted pieces of political theater are also ostensibly "about the issues" - even though they really aren't. Instead, they're about performances and aesthetics, and are almost always defined by a signature moment or sound byte: the sigh and the roll of the eye, the glance at a watch, the pithy joke, or the killer retort ("there you go again!").

So while the candidates will sit down to discuss a broad range of issues, rest assured the post-debate discussion will focus on everything but policy differences. Who "won" and who "lost?" Which candidate looked "more presidential?" Who got off the best line of the night? Who committed the biggest "gaffe?"

All of this will be processed by the public into - to use Rick Davis' words - "a composite view" of Obama and McCain, which is another way of saying that the public will take what they see, hear, and feel and reconcile it with the professed narrative of each candidate.

Every four years the political intelligentsia laments the fact that the presidential race inevitably boils down to "who you'd rather have a beer with." Guess what? The public is bellying up to the bar to take the measure of these two candidates over the next eight weeks.

Tom Bevan is the co-founder and Executive Editor of RealClearPolitics and the co-author of Election 2012: A Time for Choosing. Email: tom@realclearpolitics.com, Twitter: @TomBevanRCP

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