This is not hindsight speaking, because I said at the time of John McCain’s appointment of Sarah Palin as his running mate that it was ‘tactically brilliant, strategically disastrous.’ I have said it many times since, as The McCain-Palin blunder is one of my favourite case studies when out and about talking on why strategy should always take precedence, and tactics be subjugated to it.
Wind back a few years. McCain’s strategy was rooted in a spoken message – ‘experience,’ particularly in foreign policy, as a foil to the then young Senator Barack Obama – and an unspoken message, roughly summed up as ‘I am not George W Bush.’ In appointing Palin to the cliche position of ‘one heart beat from the Presidency’, he fired a huge double-barrelled shotgun through both planks of the strategy. His age and health suddenly became an issue at the thought that if the heart beat flipped out, the Western world’s leading politician would be a woman who claimed foreign policy experience on the basis that it was possible to see Russia from Alaska, and sometimes Russian plans flew overhead …. Oh, and Canada was also next door and that is a foreign country too, though not as scary as Russia. As for the ‘not Bush’ plank of the strategy, McCain blundered here too, given Palin makes GWB’s brand of Republicanism tame and wise by comparison.
It took the McCain camp a while to realise the scale of the blunder, because Palin’s appointment ‘excited the base,’ as the saying goes. Indeed it did. In fact it was in part because the base was getting antsy that he appointed her in the first place. The base was duly excited, crowds grew at joint rallies, the media reported fresh excitement, for a few days McCain looked fresh and newly combative. For the same few days, Obama looked worried. He needn’t have done. Tactical masterstroke, strategic calamity.
Most of you will have worked out why I have said this all once again – because Mitt Romney has gone and done the same thing. To quote one of my favourite Spice Girls’ songs – I am slowly weaning myself off Olympics mania before before diving back into Paralympics mania – ‘will this déjà vu never end?’
Romney’s base has been getting a bit agitato. The state of the economy and the divisiveness of the national debate give him plenty to fire at Obama, but he has been struggling to knock him out. His newly appointed running mate Paul D (what is it with this initial thing in the States?’ Ryan has certainly energised the media debate and the feel of the campaign on the ground, to the extent that he risks overshadowing the main man for a while.
But when the fuss has settled down a little, what does Ryan bring to the table? He brings a Republicanism that is to the right of Romney’s, strengthening the feelings of supporters they were not in much danger of losing to Obama. The question is what Ryan offers that might help Romney attract the support of those who voted for Obama last time round, but feel let down or disappointed. But delve a little into Ryan’s views and politics, and despite his vote for the Bush bank bailout, you quickly form a picture of a fairly identikit Tea Party man, and you therefore reach the conclusion Romney has acted to please the base, rather than appeal to the centre ground where he needs to win support. Whether on tax, trickle down economics, small government, big guns, medicare, gays, abortion, and family planning, he is well to the right of any spectrum. His comments on the NHS, coming on top of Romney’s ill advised dig at London’s readiness for the Olympics, get him off to a bad start with Britain.
For the moment, neither he nor Romney will worry about any of that. The base is purring. The money is flowing in. The media are loving their new toy. Like they loved Palin. But when the game got serious, nobody loved having Palin on the scene more than Obama. And if I am right that Romney is making the same mistake as McCain, Obama may grow to love Paul D Ryan too. That is why, as Romney and Ryan presented themselves to the world as ‘America’s Comeback Team’, Obama took to twitter with ‘Romney-Ryan: The Go Back Team.’ He knows this story well.