Politics & Policy

How ‘Bout a Game of ‘Pin Obama on the Donkey’?

McCain should be a player.

Hoping that the third time really is the charm, the McCain campaign has had yet another staff shakeup. As befits a press corps and Republican professional class always eager to gain favor and access to the newest man in charge, the accolades for the latest campaign manager, Steve Schmidt, are nothing short of superlative.

The argument that Schmidt is the right man for the job centers on the fact that he’s a no-nonsense type who enjoys taking the fight to the enemy. That’s good news given how much nonsense has come out of the McCain campaign so far.

For example, when retired Gen. Wesley Clark seemingly belittled McCain’s military service as poor preparation for the Oval Office, the McCain campaign blundered by attacking the messenger, Clark, and not Clark’s candidate, Barack Obama. Whether or not commanding a Navy squadron or rallying brutalized American POWs in the Hanoi Hilton is qualification for the presidency, surely this was a missed opportunity to ask whether voting “present” in the Illinois Legislature nearly 130 times is a superior qualification.

The hard truth for the McCain campaign is that this election will ultimately be a referendum on Barack Obama. A McCain presidency will be the consolation prize of an Obama defeat.

The majority of voters want to vote for a Democrat and for Obama. Hence, if they feel comfortable with the Democratic nominee, he will win. If they don’t, he’ll lose. This is bad news for McCain because he is congenitally discomfited from attacking his political adversaries (while emotionally buoyed when attacking his natural political allies).

As many have noted, it’s ironic that Obama supporters who profess to want bipartisanship are indisputably voting for the wrong guy. There’s next to nothing in Obama’s record that suggests he’s better equipped to reach across the aisle and work with the opposition party, against the wishes of his own party’s activist base. Obama is bipartisan on popular issues, not on controversial ones. Meanwhile, that’s McCain’s whole schtick.

What’s more ironic is that bipartisanship wouldn’t be an issue for a President Obama. If, as expected, the Democrats win large majorities in the House and Senate, Obama won’t need Republicans for anything, and there’s no reason to expect he would find common cause with the GOP against the base of his own party. In the Illinois Legislature, Obama was a pliable creature of the corrupt Democratic machine. Why, McCain might ask, should we expect that he will be otherwise at the national level?

Obama may be moving rapidly to the center, embracing faith-based initiatives and backpedaling on Iraq and NAFTA, but he is not “triangulating.” He has not picked any serious fights with his base, no doubt in part because he doesn’t think he has to.

This is a potential opening for McCain to exploit. Obama’s thin record offers little ammo for McCain. But the Democrats who would truly run the country if they controlled both the Congress and the White House do indeed have a long record.

The McCain campaign tried to label Obama “Dr. No” (no to drilling, no to nuclear, no to this or that) to little effect. The real issue is that Obama would be a Dr. Yes for the left-wing base of the Democratic party, some of whom, for example, have recently called for nationalizing the oil industry. Would Obama say “no” to Maxine Waters? To Nancy Pelosi? Or would he respond to their entreaties with his trademark slogan (borrowed from Cesar Chavez no less): “Yes We Can!”

Going after Obama as the front-man for the Democratic peanut gallery might divide the Democrats. It would certainly put issues in play that Obama has scrupulously kept out of the debate, from partial birth abortion to racial quotas. Obama may spin a lot of nuance when describing his own position, but the positions of his political patrons are far less malleable.

Such a strategy might also let some voters off the hook by putting the blame for voting against Obama on Congress and not on the candidate himself.

Last, by attacking Obama as, at minimum, a would-be rubber stamp of a Democratic Congress — which has an even lower approval rating than President Bush — the McCain campaign could also distance itself from the Bush years. Who can deny that many of the GOP’s manifest blunders stemmed from unified Republican control of the government?

Meanwhile, John McCain, the proven bipartisan legislator, could run as what he is: the stodgy grown-up in the race who knows how to say no to Democrats and, when he thinks it’s warranted, “Yes we can.”

Jonah Goldberg is the author of Liberal Fascism: The Secret History of the American Left from Mussolini to the Politics of Meaning.

© 2008 Tribune Media Services, Inc.


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