In politics, one of the most damaging aspects of a campaign can be a negative “meta-narrative” that continually roars back up to undermine a candidate. Howard Dean being “angry” was one, as was John Kerry being a flip-flopper. Today’s edition of “8 on ’08” examines eight such meta-narratives, both good and bad, at play this week in the presidential campaign.
1) John McCain is battling a meta-narrative that his campaign is stumbling, based on the ongoing complications in Iraq, his weak first fundraising quarter, and a lackluster response to his campaign from Republican voters. He took four major steps this week to combat that: He officially “announced” his presidential bid, appeared on The Daily Show, reshuffled some finance staff, and made a major speech on energy issues. At the end of the week, the campaign appears to have some of its momentum back, but not nearly as much as it should have. As Jon Stewart cautioned McCain, this isn’t the preseason. These games count. Whether McCain can overcome the stumbles of recent weeks is still an open question—there’s plenty of time in the race ahead—but there’s much more disarray in the GOP field than there has been in decades.
2) The Democratic presidential field met for the first time last night in a South Carolina debate notable for its relative calm. It’s too early in the race for real knock-down, drag-out fights, so the top-tier candidates played it relatively safe. Barack Obama faced a tough night as “they”—meaning the average voter as imagined by the press—questioned whether he has the substance to back up his style. By most accounts, he passed the test last night, but it’ll be an ongoing question for the rest of the spring.
3) John Edwards appears to be struggling with a growing meta-narrative that the “working man’s candidate” (itself a meta-narrative) is actually a rich, out-of-touch elitist. First there were the $400 haircuts, and now there’s a Washington Post story about his close (and lucrative) relationship with hedge funds. If Edwards is to run the campaign he appears to want to run, he’ll have to bury this meta-narrative quickly.
4) Joe Biden and Chris Dodd, two of the most experienced statesmen in the country, are both battling meta-narratives that they’re not candidates to be taken seriously. Along with Bill Richardson, who arguably is in a stronger position, they make up the “second tier” of the Democratic field. Stages like the debate last night give them all a much-needed opportunity to stand with Edwards, Obama, and Clinton. None of them burst forth last night; Biden had perhaps the strongest night of the three, but then he needed it the worst. His verbal slips have been a constant concern on the trail.
5) Hillary Clinton perhaps won the expectations game simply by turning in a solid performance. She didn’t slip but neither did she blow anyone away. She showed mastery of the issues and experience, and thus furthered the meta-narrative her campaign is trying to build that she’s the only candidate ready to be President from Day One. The modern presidency, her campaign argues, is no place for on-the-job training.
6) In anticipation of the Republicans’ first debate next week, Mitt Romney is working hard to seem serious and sincere, to combat the meta-narrative that he’s been changing his positions for political expediency. On that front, as Hotline points out, he’s working on staking out the critical-to-GOP-voters issue of taxes, particularly the abolishment of the estate tax. The “Romney Agenda” put out by his campaign this week listed three goals that are hard to argue with: He favors meeting America’s challenges around the world, making life easier for American families, and lowering taxes.
7) Rudy Giuliani meanwhile tried to further the GOP-created meta-narrative that Democrats are weak on foreign policy. Guiliani argued that electing Democrats in 2008 would lead to another 9/11, a suggestion that his opponents quickly pounced on but also a perception that has hurt Democrats in recent elections.
8) Last, we have Dennis Kucinich, who yesterday announced that he was launching an effort to impeach Vice President Dick Cheney. The articles of impeachment revolve around the intelligence effort leading up to the Iraq War and aggression towards Iran. The quixotic effort does little to combat the meta-narrative that Kucinich is a crazy liberal not to be taken seriously.