John McCain's hurdles are obvious: He's running as a conservative Republican at a time when most Americans are anxious to break with conservative Republicanism. He doesn't know anything about economics; his foreign policy vision has been completely discredited; his campaign platform includes almost nothing in the way of new ideas; and he probably won't have a lot of money, especially compared with the Democratic nominee.
But as the Politico's Jonathan Martin explained the other day, McCain does have an "unorthodox strategy" to persevere: "McCain will rely on free media to an unprecedented degree to get out his message in a fashion that aims to not only minimize his financial disadvantage but also drive a triangulated contrast among himself, the Democratic nominee and President Bush."
McCain can probably expect fawning media coverage for the rest of the year, but how does one "triangulate" against an incumbent president while running on the president's identical policy agenda?
Apparently, by ignoring the issues and focusing on style.
"People in the country are in a very bad mood, and they want to have change," says Steve Schmidt, a senior adviser to McCain. "And the first place they evaluate change is through the prism of what kind of campaigns candidates are running. Voters will have an indication of the different kind of presidency he would preside over by looking at his campaign" ...
McCain aides also want to paint their guy as different from an unpopular administration that prefers secrecy to transparency and friendly crowds to unpredictable ones.
"Sen. McCain believes every American should participate in the arena, and that includes people that don't agree with him," Schmidt says, taking care to note that such unscripted exchanges have waned "in the last decade."
How very odd. McCain is promising voters a Bush-like agenda on the economy, a Bush-like agenda on foreign policy and a Bush-like agenda on federal judges. But the two men are in no way similar, the argument goes, because McCain isn't as secretive as Bush and he won't apply ideological litmus tests at public events.
Maybe I'm misreading the public on this, but to borrow Schmidt's line, voters are "in a very bad mood, and they want to have change," but the kind of change they're looking for has very little to do with obsessive secrecy and Bush's "Bubble Boy" policies. People are in a very bad mood because Bush's policies don't work.
And those are the very same policies McCain wants to continue until 2013.
"Triangulation"? I don't think so.