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Sunday, January 13, 2008

The McCain/Lieberman ticket

I'm a branding guy. I see everything in life as a branding problem, driven by strategic reasoning -- and more often than not -- the human factors that data-driven pollsters and pundits choose to ignore. A while back, for example, CNBC asked why domestic WalMart stores were under-performing when the economy was doing so well.

Expert after expert brought in their charts, numbers and data -- all with no real explanation. When the moderator turned to me (the video clip is at my website), I simply offered up the human side of the story:

"To shop at WalMart is to be reminded that you're poor. And people don't like that. So the minute their economic picture improves, they shop elsewhere. One reason is because they can, but the more important reason is because it certifies their own progress. They are no longer forced to shop at a place that reinforces their sense of failure."

The moderator sat stunned for a few seconds, until my analyst friend Richard Hastings piped up, "You know, I think Rob may be right."

A while back in this blog, I used the same type of analysis to make the case for a 2008 Al Gore presidential bid. This time out, I want to propose why the only Republican ticket with serious possibility of winning could be John McCain and Joe Leiberman.

It doesn't take much for any plugged-in person to deduce that the race for the presidency is a wide open brawl. Yes, there are leaders and poll grabbers, but as the race drags on, there are very few consistent indicators. Of those, the most consistent political marker is "change". Change is the engine that has propelled Obama into contention. It's worked for him, as noted by the day after the Iowa caucuses, where everyone from Hillary Clinton to -- of all people -- Mitt Romney latched on to the phrase in their "on to New Hampshire" rhetoric.

Change sounds really good. But all it takes is a short trip down memory lane to recall how the very same strategy vaulted -- and then destroyed -- the presidential candidacy of one Senator Gary Hart back in 1988. Back then, Hart was touring the country, picking up support with his "we need New Ideas" pitch. Like Obama, however, nobody ever got to hear any specifics on Hart's New Ideas. It took one nationally televised debate for Walter Mondale to pull the rug out from under Hart's campaign by asking, "Gary, like they say in those TV commercials, 'Where's the beef?'"

Hart was stranded like a deer in the headlights. A short while later, he was caught with Donna Rice, a sexy blonde who wasn't his wife, on a friend's boat. History promptly buried Hart, along with his presidential ambitions.

I bring up that story because there's only one declared presidential candidate who preaches change and has a long history of challenging the administration -- even when that administration was dominated by his own party. And that's John McCain. In other words, while Obama, Clinton and the rest are whining about change, McCain -- rightly or wrongly -- is the only guy who actually has put his money where his mouth is.

That makes McCain more than a hype-master for change. That makes him an agent of change, which is exactly the brand message the public is looking for.

If McCain is known for being a maverick, there's only one guy who's more renown for "reaching across the aisle" of the Senate during his long career, and that's Joe Lieberman, the senator from Connecticut. Lieberman is the guy known best as a conservative Democrat, who ran and won his last term as -- and this is important -- an independent candidate. In late 2007, Joe Lieberman came out publicly to endorse John McCain, a Republican, for president. Which means the country potentially has what it's been asking for:

A potential President/Vice-President ticket composed with two experienced people who have track records of change.

McCain has always been the Republicans' choice for those who were never crazy about George Bush. Lieberman had enough appeal to win the Vice Presidential candidacy with Al Gore in 2004. Both guys are known for their ability to think independently and work cooperatively, despite party affiliations. And both have track records to prove everything they say that they've done or tried to do.

The country has never, at least in my recollection, ever elected a "split ticket" presidency, and if that ain't what real change is, pal, I don't know how else to sell it to you.

Is the public ready for that kind of change? Well, from everything I can tell, they're not ready for a woman leader and, judging by New Hampshire, they might tell pollsters they're ready for a black president, but in the privacy of the voting booth, they don't seem to vote that way.

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