Barry Eisler

Wednesday, September 24, 2008

Brain Dead

"It is better to keep your mouth closed and let people think you are a fool than to open it and remove all doubt."

--Mark Twain

If you're part of the McCain team, here's what you're thinking.

You didn't know anything substantive about Palin before she was selected (why would you? She wasn't vetted). You meet her. You quickly realize she's bereft of even minimal acquaintance with defense, foreign policy, the economy, climate issues, domestic concerns, or any other area in which a president needs a firm grounding. You realize you can't let her out in public unscripted because she's so unready that a disaster is certain.

Your first response, therefore, is Oh, shit.

(Before denying anything in the above paragraph, you need to explain why, if Palin could exceed or even barely meet the press's and public's increasingly modest expectations, McCain's people won't take off the gag. That they're willing to pay a price for gagging her demonstrates they know removing the gag would be worse. Watch the Letterman clip below. He asks the eminently common sense question: even if McCain himself can't multitask and it made sense for him to suspend his campaign in response to the current economic crisis as he claims, why can't his vice presidential running mate campaign in his stead? If the quarterback can't play, where's the second string?).

You fight panic. You force yourself to think... think, damn it! And you realize -- hey, you don't need to make her an actual expert on any of those tough presidential subjects (and thank God for that, because true expertise in any, let alone all of these areas would be impossible in the time and circumstances available). What you need to do instead is just train her to seem like an expert. Sure, sure, you think, feeling better now, feeling like there's hope. It's like the difference between being a real martial artist, and being able to realistically bust out a few moves in front of the cameras on a movie set. Not that the second one is easy, but it's nothing compared to the first. That's the way to look at it -- she doesn't have to be an expert; she just has to play one on TV.

You're nodding now. Positive self talk. You can do this. This can be done. It's not like you have to pull it off for two years or anything. The election's on November 4, for God's sake... that's right around the corner. Look how long Bush and company kept the war in Iraq going by continually announcing new six-month milestones. If they can do that for six years, surely you can do this for six weeks.

But you're going to have to let her out at some point. No getting around that. Eventually, people are going to start asking what you're hiding, what you're afraid of. Whether you're running a campaign worthy of Vladimir Putin, whether this mystery candidate is really the Manchurian Candidate.

Panic starts to rise again. You beat it back. You grab a pencil and paper. Write it down, come up with a method. Plan the work, work the plan. Don't panic. Think. You can do it. The plan looks like this:

1. Push back "eventually" as long as possible. Inject as many smears about Obama's patriotism and as much bullshit about lipstick and kindergarten sex education as you can to obscure what you're really up to. Sure, McCain will take heat for turning the "Straight Talk Express" into the Bullshit Express, for sullying his alleged honor and integrity, but better that be the campaign narrative than incontrovertible proof that he selected a cipher to be a 72-year-old heartbeat away from the presidency.

2. Hide her. Force feed her everything she needs to know to avoid making a catastrophic mistake when she's finally allowed to open her mouth. Remember, you don't have to turn her into an expert, just someone who plays one on TV. Just enough to avoid that catastrophic mistake.

3. The preceding two points reinforce each other. The longer you hide her, the more you can improve her acting skills and the less the public expects. When "eventually" finally happens, you push her out in front of the press and public. At this point, you've been hiding her so long everyone's expecting her to be as vacuous as the icy void of space. Instead, she gets through her talking points without a major gaffe. The narrative then becomes, "She's not as clueless as we were expecting." You shrug and say, "What was the big deal? Told you we had nothing to hide."

Lower expectations dramatically, bone up her acting skills... with a whole lot of luck, you can get the two to cross on a graph. In the meantime, it's the political high-wire act of the century. But hey, they don't pay you the big bucks for nothing.

For a variety of reasons, it won't work.

First, there's the difficulty, noted above, of bringing someone like Palin up to speed even as a pretend-expert.

Second, there's the hostility the McCain camp is engendering even in the supine mainstream media. When you've been in the tank for your buddy John McCain as long as the MSM has, and he then repeatedly ignores your gentle hints that his statements are, shall we say, at odds with the factual record, making you look like co-opted, unappreciated fools, and he then turns on his erstwhile best buds and accuses them of not even being journalists, the backlash from the erstwhile best buds is going to get downright personal. And without the press to enable it, the narrative you're desperately trying to create -- "she's better than you thought!" -- won't take root outside the rightwing blogosphere.

Then there's the economy, the wars, Katrina, the whole Republican brand...

But wait, there's still more. Choosing Palin destroyed one of the ventricles of McCain's brand: his claim to experience. You can't build a brand on experience and then select a neophyte like Palin to be your understudy. So what McCain and Palin are now trying to do, fundamentally, is build a new brand, about Change and Reform, in under two months. This is a hell of a hard thing to do -- dot bombs in Silicon Valley spent millions on just such efforts, and I'm not aware of any that succeeded. And here, the task is particularly daunting because the packaging in which McCain and Palin are attempting to wrap themselves is so at odds with the facts of the underlying product (more on political brand dissonance here). John McCain not only looks like the establishment, this son and grandson of admirals and quarter-century-in-congress-and-the-senate politician is the establishment. Meanwhile, every one of Palin's claim to be a reformer, from "thanks, but no thanks" to the Bridge to Nowhere to selling the plane on eBay to firing the governor's cook to taking a paycut to believing in transparency in government has been proven false.

So abruptly changing the McCain brand from Experience to Change/Reform is as difficult a maneuver as Volvo suddenly abandoning "safety" in favor of "speed." A change like that is damn near impossible under any circumstances. When the underlying product doesn't support -- and in fact contradicts -- the new brand direction, sales will be a disaster. As the writing on the wall becomes increasingly clear, you might even see management begin to indulge in increasingly bizarre and desperate gambits: contradicting themselves again and again on the health of the company (or of the economy); more lying, even on trivial matters; lashing out at shareholders who criticize their plans (or at the press); trying to postpone or cancel shareholder meetings (or to hide from reporters); or suspend a campaign; or cancel debates; or run from TV appearances). Anything to avoid, or just delay, the inevitable rendezvous with reality.

Speculation: what we're seeing now is not just the wheels coming off the McCain campaign following serial collisions with the real world. McCain's recent pleas to suspend the campaign and cancel debates are evidence that the candidate's age is showing. Members of the media (before concluding McCain was just using them) used to laud McCain's remarkable vigor. But even if he was vigorous during the primary, at some point the relentless pace and grinding duration of a presidential campaign will take their toll. McCain's people know if he has even one senior moment, or one of the intemperate outbursts for which he's known, during a debate, all hope will be lost. I think they've been seeing more of such moments in private, and are now trying to find a way to get him some rest before he gets lost in public. And I'm not the only one wondering. Here's George Will and company; here's David Letterman's scathing mockery.

A significant percentage of the country will vote for McCain and Palin no matter what. Likewise, a significant percentage for Obama and Biden. The independent middle only needs to move a little one way or the other to swing the election. By definition, that middle is considerate. The more time they have to consider the monumental bullshitter that John McCain has become, and how frighteningly unready his understudy is, the more independents will break for Obama.

As with Obama's race with Clinton, when the general election ends in November, people will look back and realize it had been over for a long time already. What we're seeing now is the McCain campaign's fingers continuing to twitch long after the brain has died.
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Blogger spyscribbler said...

You put that Twain quote at the top of your blog, and then expect us to comment? ;-)

The most sensible thing about Palin I've heard said by a Republican who supports McCain, lately, is when Laura Bush said Palin lacks foreign policy experience, but is a "quick study."

I don't think being a quick study is enough, but her statement sure beats McCain's bluster about Russia.

I don't understand "suspending" the campaign. Making sure the right president for the country is elected in a little over a month strikes me as just as important as dealing with the current crisis. Luckily, I think Obama is the better choice.

Who commented on your blog, awhile back, that he didn't think McCain wanted the job?

Thursday, September 25, 2008 12:19:00 AM  
Blogger KSR said...

As I’ve said before, I don’t think John McCain really wants to be president. He just wanted to win the nomination. Oh, I’m sure eight years ago, had he won the primary, he would have run a vigorous campaign and perhaps would have honestly beat Al Gore. But 2008 isn’t 2000. Or better said, 64 years of age aint 72. If it weren’t so important, I’d probably feel badly for the guy. If you haven’t already watched today’s (Sept 24th) Rachel Maddow Show (what a wonderful show), watch this segment ( In it, she itemizes John McCain’s “razzle dazzles” (e.g. cancelling the 1st night of the Republican Convention, “We’re all Georgian’s now,” impetuously chose Palin, etc) and puts them in proper context. Barry, I’m not so sure he’s intentionally trying to change his brand. I think he doesn’t know what he’s doing at all. He probably thinks all he needs to do is show up somewhere, recite a stump speech, get elected. Maybe that would work in the past. But side-by-side, Barack Obama is too much an opponent.

As an aside, I spent some time trolling the right wing blogosphere tonight (always a fun endeavor). What is so fascinating is how McCain can do ANYTHING and these bloggers will think it’s a good idea. He could kill a puppy on live tv, and these people would think he’s just being a maverick or strong, or something. Postponing the campaign seems to be a.ok with the right wing base. If I saw Obama do it, I’d completely freak out. I’d assume that my candidate had lost his freakin’ mind. I think Obama should put out an ad that says, “Barack Obama: he can walk and chew gum at the same time.”

I certainly hope McCain shows up for the debate that he hasn’t been prepping for Friday night. Barack Obama is going to look awfully lonely up there by himself. He might even look…presidential.


Thursday, September 25, 2008 12:34:00 AM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

If I may: there are interesting parallels between the US under Bush and Spain under Aznar. Both have taken their countries against their subjects' wishes, both have fumbled crisis management and day-to-day projects...

Both political systems are different enough so warrant some caution comparing, but even with all the lies and mismanagement surrounding Atocha station bombs, Aznar's party got as many votes as in the previous election; they only lost [*] because they enraged enough people to vote who'd have stayed at home. So, is there enough anger in the US to change government?

My 2 cents. Make of them as you wish.

[*]: OK, polls were showing their defeat, but it was a very narrow margin... till the bombs.

Thursday, September 25, 2008 1:41:00 AM  
Blogger David Terrenoire said...

I used to think I was cynical, but not even my darkest suspicion equals the reality of the McCain campaign.

So I don't think it's a coincidence that McCain wanted to cancel tomorrow's presidential debate and move it to next Thursday, when the VP debate is scheduled.

And you are absolutely right about the lowered expectations strategy. It worked for Bush in the denates. In fact, it's served Bush quite well his entire life.

And yet he continues to set new records for incompetence.

Thursday, September 25, 2008 6:49:00 AM  
Anonymous Penny said...

It is always amazing how twisted people become when trying to get others to see things their way. I am not thrilled with any candidate running in this election, and I am having to vote based on who has the most points in their favor.
I can't get over all of the Palin bashing. She isn't the one running for president, yet people most often are comparing her and Obama. Obama, however, is actually running for president, which I find scary. He even admitted himself that he doesn't have the experience to lead the country and said that he wouldn't be running in this election, but here he is! Somehow, spending less physical time in the Senate than a second grader spends in second grade, he has gotten enough experience to lead one of the world's superpowers. Isn't that something! Not only is he inexperienced, but an obvious liar. Check out the clip on Youtube.
Seems like he's all about the "change". :-)
Also, I don't see why people can't understand a few things. Fine, McCain is old, but he is not trying to back out of debating because of fear, fatigue, or for being unprepared. We are, at the moment, in a serious crisis, and the leaders of our country need to work together. Instead of wanting to secure the nation, Obama is thinking only of his political career. A career over the country's well being? Ok. Whatever is most important to you, I guess.
There are also so many double standards. Let's all just forget that Obama is actually quite racist, and the comment "...just a typical white person" has been quickly pushed aside by democrats. Imagine if, for ANY reason, McCain or Pailn said " a typical black person". They'd be run out of the election so fast it would take people a while to figure out what happened.
I also find it comical that people like to write about the "12 lies of Palin". :-) Let's try this:
I think I would rather have a vp with 12, than a p with 50.
I still don't agree with everything about the McCain/Palin team, and I think all politicians are liars and cheaters. You just have to find the ones who are less so than others.

Thursday, September 25, 2008 9:42:00 AM  
Blogger PBI said...

I think the current state of affairs within the McCain campaign is a combination of the entitlement and lack of agility that Ken cites, as well as what Barry describes: the frantic efforts of his handlers and staff to do anything they can to keep the gunwales of their boat from fully submerging beneath the waves. I also agree that since the discovery of the real Sarah Palin, that this election is, in fact, largely over barring revelations that Obama is some sort of flesh-eating alien from Venus concealed by a human mask. There are likely to be some blips that favor McCain between now and November - although I'm at a loss to name specifics - but the trend lines are clear.

Frankly, given what the GOP has done to this country, it couldn't happen to a nicer bunch of people. Watching part one of Governor Palin's interview with Katie Couric (here) was a pleasure - the mainstream press actually doing it's job - but it also made me wish doubly that they had done the same thing with Bush, who was no better, in 2000. Still, despite the direness of the times, I enjoyed immensely this description of the interview over at John Cole's Balloon Juice blog:

I’m still in shock over how terrible the Palin/Couric interview was. “Train wreck” is being charitable – it was more like a train derailing on a bridge, tumbling a thousand feet into a canyon and landing on a pile of old dynamite and gas drums. And then a jumbo jet crashed into the flaming wreckage. Followed by an earthquake that caused the whole mess to slide off a cliff into the sea, where the few miraculous survivors were eaten by sharks.

Sensen No Sen

PS.To the question from Anonymous ("So, is there enough anger in the US to change government?"), I can only say, if not now, when?

Thursday, September 25, 2008 10:56:00 AM  
Blogger Jordan Dane said...

Hey Barry---I used to live in Alaska (for 10 years). And before I quit to write full time, I had a job in the energy industry with 25+ years experience. I had no idea that would qualify me to be a Vice Presidential candidate with my VAST experience in foreign affairs and energy. Where do I sign up?

Thursday, September 25, 2008 1:01:00 PM  
Blogger *Akilah Sakai* said...

Laura Bush saying Palin DOES lack foreign policy experience was a much needed honest statement! Who gives a rat’s arse if Russia can be seen from her coast! Just flat out say what Laura said and add “she’s a quick learner” or whatever instead of spoon feeding the world b.s. It’s insulting! The main issue is people use sound bites and no one wants to go out and investigate after a long day at work. They are banking on the sound bite brigade to win the election. I can’t wait till Nov. 4th because any day now my husband is going to fling the remote at our TV thinking some dingbat pundit or spokesperson may magically feel a knock in the head. I really like my TV and it shouldn’t be abused in that way.

“KSR said…
As an aside, I spent some time trolling the right wing blogosphere tonight (always a fun endeavor). What is so fascinating is how McCain can do ANYTHING and these bloggers will think it’s a good idea. He could kill a puppy on live TV, and these people would think he’s just being a maverick or strong, or something.

KSR, that’s absolutely hilarious. My laptop is thankful I wasn’t drinking when I read it.

Thursday, September 25, 2008 1:04:00 PM  
Blogger spyscribbler said...

I apologize if you've already linked this, Barry. Have you seen this interview with Katie Couric? It's actually painful.

Thursday, September 25, 2008 1:53:00 PM  
Anonymous ac said...

I haven't looked forward to anything on TV recently more than I'm looking forward to the VP debate. I'm so afraid something will come up that will postpone it. Each of 3 interviews Sarah Palin has given has only increased my excitement.

Thursday, September 25, 2008 5:35:00 PM  
Blogger David Terrenoire said...


I love snopes, because they do try to honestly get to the facts, something you don't seem capable of, or interested in, doing.

Check your own link and read what snopes discovered about those so-called 50 lies.

You know, pure hatred like this, as long as I've been alive, still staggers me with its saliva-flecked vitriol and willful cognitive dissonance.

If you don't like Obama, fine. If you think he's unfit for the presidency, that's fine too. But making up hateful things about a man you don't know, that seems to indicate some pathological shortcoming on your part.

I despair that so many of my fellow citizens believe this bushwa.

Please, if you have any interest in truth, read snopes' answers to the post you linked to.

Thursday, September 25, 2008 6:10:00 PM  
Anonymous Ben said...

I'm interested to hear the debates as well. Palin is a good speaker, so i wouldn't be surprised if she does much better than everyone thinks.

My only gripe with this post was when i read the part about the MSM being in the tank, only for MCCAIN???! I'm sorry, but i don't know where you get that barry. If anything, look at how the MSM defended Obama's flip flops on warrantless wiretapping and Iraq and public financing. Try watching MSNBC, especially Keith Olbermann. When i watch his show i am convinced it's an arm of the Obama campaign.

Friday, September 26, 2008 6:20:00 AM  
Blogger Barry said...

Ben, here are two links you might find interesting. And remember, McCain himself likes to joke that the media is "his base."

David, thanks for responding to Penny. Penny, given that the Snopes article you were relying on stands for the opposite proposition for which you cited it, I wonder if you'll change your position?

Don't worry, I was just kidding there.


Friday, September 26, 2008 7:00:00 AM  
Blogger David Terrenoire said...


Along with the links Barry gave you, read this recent column by the Post's Richard Cohen:

The reason so many journalists were McCain fans is a carryover from the 2000 campaign when McCain would wear out reporters answering questions. They loved him for that and it was a refreshing change from the tightly-controlled and heavily scripted campaigns of the other candidates.

The press corps considered McCain different than other politicians, and he was.

But that was in 2000.

As for Obama's flip-flopping on the FISA bill and public financing, the first got him raked over the coals by quite a few people, Barry included. The second was a practical way to combat the combined finances of McCain and the RNC. It would have been suicide to do otherwise.

As for the Iraq flip flop, I don't think he did change his mind. He has always been pragmatic about how quickly we could withdraw and how that withdrawal could change given events in country. You might disagree.

I'll leave it to others who have more patience than I to catalog all of the changes in McCain's positions. But here's just one - the Bush tax cuts. Pretty important given this week's headlines.

Friday, September 26, 2008 8:50:00 AM  
Anonymous Lara said...

Governor Palin, quote, began college at Hawaii Pacific College, a private, nonsectarian school in Honolulu. She attended only as a freshman during the fall of 1982 in the business administration program as a full-time student.

From Hawaii Pacific, Palin transferred to North Idaho College in Coeur d'Alene. She attended the college as a general studies major for two semesters, in spring 1983 and fall 1983.

From North Idaho College, Palin transferred to the University of Idaho for two semesters, from fall 1984 to spring 1985. She majored in journalism with an emphasis in broadcast news. During this time Palin won the Miss Wasilla Pageant beauty contest, then finished third (second runner-up) in the Miss Alaska pageant.

She then returned to Alaska to attend Matanuska-Susitna College in Palmer for one term in fall 1985.

The next year she returned to the University of Idaho where she spent three semesters, for spring 1986, fall 1986 and spring 1987, completing her Bachelor of Science degree in communications-journalism, graduating in 1987.

Despite her journalism degree, she does not appear to have worked for the college newspaper or campus television station, school officials said. She worked briefly as a sportscaster for KTUU in Anchorage after she graduated college.

So... Sarah Palin attended five colleges in six years before graduating from the University of Idaho in 1987.

And Laura Bush claims Governor Palin is "a quick learner"?

As per her educational record, it appears Governor Palin not only lacks the EXPERIENCE, she lacks _THE_ EDUCATION too.

As to Mrs. McCain's comment about Palin's alleged but ultimately no-show foreign policy "experience" by the ah-so simple virtue of Alaska neighboring Russia, well yes, we all know President Bush made home in Texas for years. And, I'm sure, we all know that Texas shares a long border with Mexico, a foreign entity. President Bush's understanding of how to conduct foreign policies speaks for itself.

Saturday, September 27, 2008 1:37:00 AM  

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