Friday, February 22, 2008

Campaign Strategy Watch: The Old White Guy in a Suit Strategy (Why - unless he loosens up and ditches his suit for denims - McCain REALLY Can't Win)

Ned Barnett (c) 2008

It's long been said that Republicans tend to nominate the candidates who are next in line - who can lay claim to "it's my turn." That was offered to explain Bush 41 and Dole in '96 ... and it may come into play in 2008 as well.

But I'd like to offer an alternative answer. I call it the "old white guy in a suit" strategy. For as long as I can remember, Republicans seem enamored of the "old white guy in a suit ..." Sometimes, this works - hence Reagan - but mostly, it doesn't - especially when the Democratic Party offers someone other than an old white guy in a suit themselves.

Reagan - an old white guy in a suit - beat Jimmy Carter, another old white guy in a suit (and if you remember, Carter looked about 150 years old in 1980 - the Presidency had taken a real toll). So he had a chance, and won. Then in '84, Mondale was the quintessential old-looking white guy in the suit - he made Reagan, who was our oldest living President and a man who'd been gut-shot, too boot - as if he was young, fresh and vibrant.

Based on this theory, Bush 41 might have been an anomaly in '88 - but Dukakis was America's first Kamikaze Kandidate, and did himself in by riding in tanks and talking about empaneling committees if his wife was raped. A chimpanzee in dirty diapers could have beat the Duke, and even an old white guy in a suit like Bush 41 won with ease.

But four years later, Bush 41 was a successful war leader (and those guys almost always win) and - if you looked closely - the mild '91/'92 recession was already over by election day, and incumbent Presidents who preside over rising economies usually win, too. Incumbents Carter and Ford both lost in downturn economies, but Nixon - even in the shadow of Watergate and the "never-ending war" in Vietnam, won handily, in part because the economy still seemed strong (that quickly changed, but he'd already won re-election), and in part because first Humphrey and then McGovern looked like older white guys in suits.

However, with all that put together, Bush '41 was an old white guy in a suit, and he lost to a young, vibrant and with-it (boxers or briefs/saxophone on Arsenio) guy who seemed to prefer shirt-sleeves to suits. So Clinton won in '92, a young hip guy beating an old white man in a suit.

Four years later, against that still-young, still-hip, still-with-it President in shirt-sleeves, the Republicans - having lost with an old white guy who looked good in a suit - decided to run an older white guy who looked worse in a suit. The issue was never in doubt.

Bush '43 seemed comfortable in shirt-sleeves, and like Reagan, he seemed to really like his working ranch. This time the Democrats screwed up, running two old white guys in suits - first Gore (who looked older than Bush 43) and Kerry, (who looked a lot older than Bush). Gore looked uncomfortable in his suits (he looks uncomfortable in his skin) and - while Kerry looked just fine in his tailored Savile Row suits, he looked remarkably uncomfortable in duck-hunting waders or anything other than a suit. So in those two elections, the Democrats adopted the "old white guy in a suit" strategy, and lost.

Which brings us to 2008. The Democrats are - at this writing - fighting it out between the first WOMAN Presidential candidate and the first BLACK Presidential candidate - neither of whom is an old white guy in a suit.

Hillary, in her "uniform" pants-suits, is 20 years older than Obama, and she's white, too - and in part, I think that's why Obama is (the day after his 10th straight win in Wisconsin) is doing so well.

Obama isn't old - he's about the youngest viable Presidential candidate in US history - and he isn't white - but even without those traditional attributes, Obama looks remarkably good in a suit ... but he also looks comfortable in shirt-sleeves. When was the last time you saw Hillary in anything but an ugly pants-suit (she looks like Dole in drag). But even with Hillary's pants-suit fetish, she's not an old white guy in a suit.

But McCain, the presumptive Republican candidate in 2008, is the oldest candidate (who's not an incumbent) who's running for the Presidency, and like Dole, he doesn't look good in a suit - though he wears one on most occasions. So, in the face of something really new, the Republicans seem hell-bent on nominating the quintessential "old white guy in a suit" - and one who, like the Republican's most recent failure in the "old white guy in a suit" sweepstakes, doesn't look good in a suit.

Based on this often-ignored by historically decisive factor alone, McCain doesn't stand a chance ... and Hillary is not far behind in the "no-chance" sweepstakes (though I've learned to never count out a Clinton until he - or she - is dead-and-buried, and even then I wouldn't be entirely sure until after I'd personally driven a wooden stake through their hearts).

The "old white guy in a suit" strategy isn't going to work - again - and unless McCain rolls up his sleeves and starts wearing blue jeans and denim work shirts (as Bush '43 has done), he's doomed before he starts.

Remember, you heard it here first.