Scrappy Screener:

April 15, 2007

Edwards Takes on McCain While GOP Field Pauses

In our inaugural post we looked at how and why John McCain laid a collision course for skeptical conservatives and anti-war detractors. We closed by asking, “How will politicos respond to this crazy play?”

For Democratic party challengers, a counter to McCain’s I-dare-ya Crazy Ivan was a no-brainer. John Edwards waited barely a news cycle to unleash a quick burst of combination jabs: His brief website statement was remarkable for its low word count and high play content: “The McCain Doctrine of escalation has failed, and the bombing of the Iraqi parliament within the green zone makes that all too clear. John McCain is just wrong; it is time for America to start leaving Iraq.” In 37 words, Edwards re-ran a favorite and corrosive Label (The McCain Doctrine), a Mirror to support his anti-war stance (the bombing of the Iraqi parliament), and an authoritative Fiat (McCain is just wrong.)

Strategy is a many-layered thing, of course, and in as much as the Label/Mirror/Fiat flurry serves specific purposes, it also supports an overarching or alpha strategy of the Edwards campaign best characterized as a Screen : Break from the pack by playing directly against McCain. Who better, after all, to contrast and showcase Edwards’ emphatic anti-war position? Who better to challenge on the political gridiron than a seasoned lawmaker and decorated soldier and POW? Screens are run by players to glean residual meaning from issues, ideas, events and other symbols and, in this case. Edwards got what he wanted, albeit from a non-conference competitor. Score one for the adventurous former Senator.

But for Republicans, the matter was a stickier wicket. A new study from The Pew Research Center made the dilemma all too clear: If Giuliani, Romney, Brownback, Huckabee, Tancredo, Cox, Gilmore, Hunter, Thompson-the-official, Thompson-the-unofficial, etc. endorse McCain’s unrepenting pro-war position, they’ll appease the GOP faithful but alienate uncommitted moderates, to say nothing of staunch Democrats. And certainly, if they run from McCain, they’ll pick up the middle but anger the base and jeopardize a coveted nomination. This political pickle is what chess masters gleefully call a zugzwang. It forces an offensive-minded player to defend rather than advance its position, thus wasting a move. Too many of these and it”s checkmate.

So did GOP candidates dilute McCain with a me-too Crowd ? Here’s “my” plan to win in Iraq… Hardly. Did they replay his one-note-tune with Recasts ? We should prevail in Iraq…and on immigration, too. To some extent. Honor McCain”s position as “courageous,” but don’t say anything more about him or the topic, they reasoned. In any case, the GOP candidates” response to McCain’s Crazy Ivan was notably mute, so score one for the cornered but canny senior Senator.

As Republican candidates adjust to McCain’s ploy, we expect they’ll see the opportunity to question not the motive to win in Iraq but the means. Savvy Screens (e.g., made-for-media meetings at war colleges and brainstorming sessions with generals), hinting Pings (e.g., Is counter-insurgency a good counter-strategy?), and testing Trial Balloons (e.g., How do we win this?), could pave the way for a new position that mines the middle road, taking McCain off his game and putting others in an ideological lock box. Who could and would deliver such a pragmatic message? Who would run these plays? Perhaps another master (and victim) of playmaking. Newt.

Posted by Alan Kelly and Michael Cornfield