Editor’s note: A longer version of this piece appears in the new issue of National Review.
The good news for Republicans is that Obama can be beaten. The bad news is that the McCain campaign has embarked on a course that — although it has some of the right elements — seems likely to fail.
McCain would be most comfortable running in accord with his particular notions of political virtue while emphasizing character, national security, and a few pet causes such as earmarks. If he wants to win, he has to leave his comfort zone. He should take a page from Hillary Clinton. She did not, of course, defeat Obama, but she road-tested a strategy that cost him support among crucial constituencies — and that strategy is even better suited to McCain’s general-election run than it was to her primary campaign.
McCain ought to be encouraged by how close she came. She was a plodding speaker lacking pizzazz, drew smaller crowds than Obama by an order of magnitude, and was outspent and out-organized. McCain has all the same deficits. Yet she fought Obama nearly to a draw, and after February — when she had finally figured out how to run against him — beat him soundly. That was too late for her. But it is not too late for McCain.
Even her failure offers an instructive lesson for McCain. She went too long without frontally attacking Obama. When she did get more aggressive, he was already galloping toward the nomination on the strength of his narrow but insurmountable pledged-delegate lead. McCain has repeated this mistake, whether because of his sense of honor, his campaign’s disorganization, or, less likely, some master plan that escapes most observers. McCain and the Republican National Committee should have hit Obama right after he won the Democratic nomination. An Associated Press poll shows that the two words people tie most to Obama are “outsider” and “change,” associations McCain should have been contesting from Day One.
Once Clinton went after Obama in earnest, she came back. She surged on the strength of her “3 a.m. phone call” ad, which ran prior to the Ohio and Texas primaries and argued that she was better suited than the neophyte Obama to handle a crisis. And she rolled up her post-February wins on the basis of lunch-bucket appeals to working-class white and Hispanic voters. For a contemporary Democrat, Hillary ran a center-Right campaign; she talked of blowing Iran to smithereens, downed shots of Crown Royal, and appealed frankly to blue-collar whites. Many of these tactics had little substance, but they conveyed a sense of toughness that endeared Hillary to her voters and highlighted a vulnerability of the polished but aloof and fragile-seeming Obama.
McCain is in a better position to use this strategy against Obama than Clinton was. She was never wholly convincing in her adopted role as a working-class warrior. McCain, on the other hand, has the warrior part of the persona in his genes. Nor does McCain face the constraints Clinton did. Going negative in a primary makes party loyalists deeply nervous, and explicitly attacking cultural liberalism in a Democratic primary is unthinkable. Obama has more evident weaknesses than he did when the Democratic primaries started and he was freshly on the scene. His core audience, finally, is a smaller proportion of the general than of the Democratic-primary electorate.
Oddly enough, the most disgruntled of Clinton’s supporters are not the voters that McCain should try hardest to reach. It should go without saying that feminists will not deliver McCain the presidency. Her hard-core early supporters, middle-aged white feminists, may be complaining about Obama but are totally committed to abortion and will vote accordingly. It is her soft-core and later supporters who can be reached. Clinton got them so easily as to suggest that they were as much an anti-Obama vote as a pro-Clinton one.
McCain’s greatest opportunity will be among whites (and, to a lesser extent, Hispanics) without college degrees. Democrats who fell into these categories proved unreceptive to Obama in the primaries. McCain should have an even bigger opening among the independents and soft Democrats in these groups. Working-class whites have been swing voters in presidential elections, with most of their votes going to Republicans but the margin making the difference between victory and defeat. Many of them are at least moderately conservative on social issues, but they are receptive to Democratic proposals on health care, the minimum wage, and other economic issues. A lot of them are union members, or married to union members. If McCain makes inroads among these voters, his numbers will rise disproportionately in such swing states as Michigan, Missouri, Ohio, Pennsylvania, New Mexico, and Nevada.
The first step toward getting them is to make the anti-Obama case. The cliché among political operatives and pundits is that this election is “about Obama.” The truth in the claim is that since the public would rather have a Democratic president, the race will turn largely on whether Obama is an acceptable one. It follows that McCain’s main task is to make him unacceptable to voters — and particularly to non-black working-class voters. He has to first raise concerns about Obama and then show how his candidacy addresses those concerns.
The case against Obama need not (and probably should not) be subtle. In a nutshell: He’s too inexperienced, too liberal, and as a result too risky. McCain has to argue that a man who has been in the Senate a mere four years, and whose most significant résumé items prior to that are a stint in the Illinois legislature and time as a community organizer, is not ready to be commander-in-chief in dangerous times. The flip-flop charges against Obama will achieve nothing for McCain unless they are deployed to make him look risky: immature (he doesn’t know what he thinks), weak (he caves to pressure), and dishonest (he tries to fool people).
On top of this, McCain has to go after Obama’s liberalism, which verges on radicalism. The congealing conventional wisdom is that attacks on liberalism are “tired.” But there is no evidence that the “change” the public wants is left-wing. McCain is deeply averse (for no good reason) to hitting Obama over the Rev. Jeremiah Wright. But Obama’s record, from Illinois to the Senate to the campaign trail, provides many other openings. The bottom line is that Obama is a liberal you can’t trust and can’t, in every sense, afford.
Such are the Republican straits this year that doubts about Obama aren’t by themselves going to be enough for McCain. He has to present himself as a compelling answer to the moment. And any election is a choice; the question of Obama’s acceptability will be judged relative to McCain’s appeal. McCain’s selling points are exactly the reverse of Obama’s: He is experienced, in the political mainstream, and a steady hand.
Several of the most salient issues in this election hold promise for Republicans: Tax increases are still unpopular; support for domestic oil drilling and nuclear power has shot up (for nuclear it is as high as 67 percent); the Iraq War, while remaining a negative, has steadily become less of one; and Republicans lead on fighting terrorism. McCain can, and must, win these debates.
McCain’s case for himself on foreign policy almost writes itself: He has been immersed in it for 30 years, his military judgment about Iraq has been spot-on, and he recognizes the dangers we face around the world. The public isn’t in a belligerent mood, so McCain needs to avoid seeming reckless or dismissive of allies; but on Iran, for instance, he has sold a policy that seems, and is, tough and responsible.
It is on domestic policy that Republicans are weakest, as has been the case in most years. That is a reason Republicans ought to be talking more about it: They have a lot of upside potential.
Health care is supposed to be one of the Democrats’ best issues this year. But they are overreaching, and Republicans have as strong a platform as they ever have had. McCain can plausibly say that his plan will make insurance more affordable. He will thus get more people insurance without forcing them to buy it or subsidize it. His plan involves no backdoor government rationing or penalties for small business, as Obama’s plan does. What voters want most when it comes to health insurance are portability, affordability, and control. McCain should make the case for his plan with confidence and frequency.
Oddly for a Republican, McCain is better positioned on health care than on taxes. He has proposed several tax cuts and tax reforms, but none have offered much in the way of immediate benefits for middle-class families — which is particularly important, to counter Obama’s promise of a middle-class tax cut. The only way for McCain to offer middle-class tax relief is to go after the tax that hits the middle class hardest: the payroll tax. And the only way to do that without taking on Social Security frontally is to offer families a tax credit for children that can be applied against payroll taxes. That idea should appeal to independents and even some Democrats.
Conservatives should be willing to give McCain a fairly wide berth to accent his maverick credentials. Incredibly enough, his favorable/unfavorable numbers are comparable to Obama’s. McCain’s advocacy (for better or, largely, worse) of campaign-finance reform and “comprehensive” immigration reform, together with his excoriating opposition to the earmarks of both parties, delineates his independence. By the end of the campaign, he will surely be arguing that he can be a healthy check on the excesses of a Democratic Congress, while working with it, when possible, to advance important goals.
Even in a best-case campaign, McCain is going to have to take a few calculated risks. One of them might be making a one-term pledge during his speech at the Republican convention: a commitment to place fixing Washington above personal or partisan interest.
Most important, McCain’s campaign needs a unifying theme. It so far has lacked one, which has made it seem carping and defensive, and has diminished McCain. Here again, he can emulate Hillary, offering a conservative version of her occasional theme of a “fighter for you.” In particular, he should be fighting for middle-class Americans against the lobbyists, institutions, and liberals who in various ways block their aspirations.
It is not enough, in other words, to offer wonky “reforms,” although that’s important. McCain has to tap into the anger and frustration of the American public. He has to complain that Washington is broken and argue that both parties have let voters down. He has done it before. In 2000, he was the feisty — even angry — crusader against Washington and the status quo. It wasn’t the ideal message for a Republican primary audience at that time, but now that voters desperately want such a candidate, McCain can’t quite find his old mojo.
The fighter theme would work on multiple levels. It would tap into the public mood of disenchantment with Washington and politics. It would suit McCain, who is at his best when expressing an outraged irascibility (getting angry is not something he usually has trouble doing) and whose sense of honor is genuinely offended by many Washington practices. It would communicate a certain vigor, perhaps mitigating concerns about his age. It would be in keeping with an aggressive anti-Obama campaign. It would excite conservatives because — much of the time — McCain would be fighting against a confirmed liberal with an adoring media, while the populism and the anti-Washington cast of the message would appeal to independents as well.
Our basic analysis, by the way, happens to accord with that of Democratic pollster Douglas Schoen, who did a survey for the Aspen Institute and teased out from it the best messages for McCain and Obama. Schoen’s data indicated that “McCain has yet to challenge the premises behind the Obama candidacy, and is allowing him to consolidate support in ways that give him a slight but clear advantage.” Foreign policy might be a strength, “but to win, McCain needs to go beyond foreign policy and capture the economic issue, particularly by winning support from those who believe Obama lacks experience and will raise taxes. McCain must link this negative Obama theme with his own strong, economic reform message in order to distance himself from Bush and have his own distinctive domestic agenda.”
The McCain campaign shouldn’t be lulled into a false sense of security by the narrowness of Obama’s lead. It may be that the best analogy is not 1976 — when the upstart challenger Jimmy Carter opened a huge lead over President Ford that steadily diminished over the fall — but 1980. That race was close until the end, when voters decided they were comfortable with Ronald Reagan, allowing him to blow out President Carter. McCain helps Obama every day he fails to define and challenge him, as the public slowly gets used to the idea of the Democrat as a national leader.
The environment is so tough for Republicans that McCain won’t be able to win just on points. If it’s even a close call whether Obama is acceptable, Obama probably wins. McCain needs to fight, and time’s a-wastin’.