Brand protection without the fetish

In several posts, John has criticized Senator McCain for denouncing fellow Republicans who produced a television ad linking Senator Obama to the offensive comments made by his spiritual adviser, Jeremiah Wright. Now, it appears that McCain has seen the light. His current view, as stated at a press conference in Florida, is that the issue is a legitimate one. After all, as McCain points out, Obama said this himself during his interview with Fox’s Chris Wallace.

So why did McCain initially criticize Republicans for raising the issue? The answer, I think, has to do with “brand protection,” reinforced by instinct (or perhaps the other way around). McCain recognizes that to win in November he must protect his brand, which is based in part on taking the high road and on criticizing Republicans periodically. Nor does this require much cynicism. McCain instinctually looks for what he takes to be the high moral ground, has little difficulty locating it from time to time on terrain his party declines to occupy, and is far from bashful about saying so. That, of course, is how this drill became central to the McCain brand.

In the case of Obama and his pastor, though, McCain went too far. It was fine for McCain to say that he will not push the issue because he prefers to talk about his own record and on substantive issues. Doing so not only reinforces McCain’s image as someone who takes the high road, it’s what we should expect from a national leader. However, denouncing others for raising the issue (1) offends many Republicans who, in good faith, find significance in the Obama-Wright association and (2) may diminish the potency of a legitimate issue. The best approach, therefore, is to take the “high road” but this time without attacking less “noble” Republicans.

McCain eventually figured this out and, assisted by Obama’s acknowledgement that his association with Wright is a legitimate issue, now takes what is probably both the correct and politically optimal approach.

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