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The 2008 presidential race is shaping up to be a contest between Democratic senator Barack Obama and Republican senator John McCain.
Team Obama is no doubt overjoyed, having already road-tested the “yesterday versus the future” rhetoric that will be the centerpiece of the fight between their charismatic 46-year-old and the 71-year-old Vietnam War veteran. But Team McCain, despite its outreach problems among the GOP’s base, needn’t despair. Obama, a senator in only his third year, can be beaten. If only McCain would try.
Just days after MSNBC talking head Chris Matthews reported experiencing “a thrill going up my leg” while listening to Obama speak, the Hardball host lambasted a Texas legislator, Kirk Watson, who had come on the show to do his part in support of Obama’s campaign.
Matthews was merciless: “What has he accomplished, sir? You say you support him. Sir, you have to give me his accomplishments. You’ve supported him for president. You’re on national television. Name his legislative accomplishments. Barack Obama. Sir.”
Poor Kirk Watson’s answer was instructive (and accurate): “Well, I’m not going to be able to name you specific items of legislative accomplishments.”
Matthews pressed on: “Can you name any? Can you name anything he’s accomplished as a congressman?”
Watson: “No, I’m not going to be able to do that tonight.”
Matthews: “Well, that is a problem, isn’t it?”
It sure is. McCain has both an authority that comes with real experience in Washington and a good-ole-boy likeability — to anyone who’s not working with him, at least: he’s known for intemperate outbursts in the Senate. What’s more, McCain doesn’t have the high negatives his colleague Sen. Hillary Clinton suffers from, perhaps fatally. McCain can adopt the “ready from day one” meme the former First Lady has patronizingly used with Democratic primary voters. And he can do it with a well-earned legitimacy that Clinton could never convincingly claim.
McCain needs to make the fullest possible use of this obvious advantage. Sen. Obama’s public statements to date indicate a naive belief that he can wave a magic wand and remove our troops from Iraq the day he is inaugurated. McCain, by contrast, is a grown-up: He knows that left-wing promises to “end the war in Iraq” are euphemisms for losing the war in Iraq. McCain was the leading advocate of the “surge” policy that Gen. David Petraeus has successfully executed in Iraq, at a time when that position was very unpopular in Washington. His campaign in the early primaries — the “No Surrender Tour” — highlighted his seriousness on the war in Iraq, and it has been his saving grace with conservative voters. But he needs to go beyond that.
As Congress went into the Presidents’ Day recess, McCain missed a great opportunity to show he’s willing to be a leader on national security. When Congress faced a deadline to continue a post-9/11 reform that allows intelligence officials to monitor foreign terrorists overseas, Congress went on vacation without getting a bill to the president’s desk. As the House defiantly and recklessly refused to act, McCain could have taken the opportunity to show leadership on the domestic front of war on terror, using the deadline as a clarifying moment in both the election and the war. But he didn’t.
After winning the Wisconsin primary the following week, McCain took aim at Obama. He declared: “I will fight every moment of every day in this campaign to make sure Americans are not deceived by an eloquent but empty call for change … that promises no more than a holiday from history and a return to the false promises and failed policies of a tired philosophy that trusts in government more than the people. Our purpose is to keep this blessed country free, safe, prosperous and proud. And the changes we offer to the institutions and policies of government will reflect and rely upon the strength, industry, aspirations and decency of the people we serve.”
For all his faults, Rudy Giuliani was clear and unrelenting when it came to terrorist surveillance. He talked like the prosecutor he once was, tracking down and convicting mobsters. Maybe McCain needs a talking to the next time Rudy does a campaign appearance for him. If McCain means what he says, he needs to fight the whole of the terrorists’ war against us. He can convince the nation he belongs in the White House, but he’s going have to lead on security, both foreign and domestic, to do it.
© Copyright 2008, Newspaper Enterprise Assn.