Published in The Washington Post on May 18, 2008.
John McCain is America’s favorite kind of candidate. With his record of extraordinary patriotism and his distinctive Senate tenure, McCain is a nominee whom voters from both parties — and independents, too — could easily support.
But he has been dealt a terrible hand: a tanking economy, an unpopular war, a Republican incumbent whose approval ratings are at their all-time low and a gloomy national mood, with 82 percent of Americans saying in a Washington Post-ABC News poll last week that the country is on the wrong track. Political scientists add all that up and predict that the Democrats are destined to win the White House. But I don’t do political science; I do politics, and I’m convinced that McCain can still win — if he’s willing to follow the road map below.
McCain needs to not run as a traditional Republican, which is easy, since he’s not one. After all, how did an anti-torture, anti-tobacco, pro-campaign finance reform, anti-pork, pro-alternative-energy Republican ever emerge from the primaries alive? Simple: The GOP electorate, along with the rest of the country, has moved somewhat to the left. (In Florida, for example, exit polls showed that only 27 percent of Republican primary voters described themselves as “very conservative,” while 28 percent said they were “moderate” and 2 percent said they were “very liberal.”)
Meanwhile, McCain’s likely rival, Barack Obama, has raised such doubts among voters that their concerns momentarily energized even Hillary Rodham Clinton’s sagging campaign. With the help of the incendiary comments of his former pastor, the Rev. Jeremiah A. Wright Jr., Obama’s negatives have been rising even as he nears the finish line.
Still, voters are tending heavily toward the Democratic Party. Normally, party preferences are about even, but recent national polls give Democrats a decided edge. In last week’s Post-ABC poll, 53 percent of Americans identified themselves as Democrats or leaned toward the party, compared with 39 percent who were Republicans or tilted to the GOP.
To sum it up: A candidate who cannot get elected is being nominated by a party that cannot be defeated, while a candidate who is eminently electable is running as the nominee of a party doomed to defeat.
In this environment, McCain can win by running to the center.
His base will be there for him; indeed, it will turn out in massive numbers. Wright has become the honorary chairman of McCain’s get-out-the-vote efforts. It would be nice to think that race isn’t a factor in American politics anymore, but it is. The growing fear of Obama, who remains something of an unknown, will drag every last white Republican male off the golf course to vote for McCain, and he will need no further laying-on of hands from either evangelical Christians or fiscal conservatives.
So McCain doesn’t have to spend a lot of time wooing his base. What he does need to do is reduce the size of the synapse over which independents and fearful Democrats need to pass in order to back his candidacy. If the synapse is wide, they will stay with Obama. But if they perceive McCain as an acceptable alternative, there is every chance that they will cross over to back him in November.
If the GOP nominee were Mitt Romney or Mike Huckabee, independents and Democrats might not vote Republican even if they became convinced that Obama is some kind of sleeper agent sent to charm and conquer our democracy. Even Rudy Giuliani, with his penchant for confrontation, might have elicited sufficient doubts among Democrats to hold them in line for Obama. But McCain doesn’t threaten anyone. Everyone can appreciate the ordeal that tested his courage in Vietnam, and independents and Democrats can celebrate much of his legislative record. Voting for McCain is an easy sell.
Except, of course, for Iraq. This is his biggest problem — the one issue that impales the Arizona senator and hampers his ability to induce liberals to cross the line.
Earlier in the race, Iraq might have been a deal-breaker. But a kinder, gentler war has emerged. U.S. combat deaths are way down, and the de facto U.S. alliance with Sunni tribal leaders in Anbar province against al-Qaeda in Iraq seems to have dramatically improved the security situation. Still, most Americans don’t like the war, and McCain must deal with their opposition if he wants to win.
The solution is to draw Obama out — to ask the untested senator what he would do if al-Qaeda in Iraq took over the country . . . or if Iran did . . . or if the Iraqis who backed the U.S. mission were being slaughtered by the thousands . . . or if Islamist terrorists seized control of the country’s oil wealth.
Obama, not wanting to appear weak, would no doubt rise to the bait and agree that he might need to send troops back in under certain conditions. He would assure us that sufficient forces would be available at nearby bases to get the job done. To avoid coming across as indecisive and timid, he would put on a sufficiently hawkish face to reassure the voters. And in doing so, he would blur the war issue vis-a-vis McCain. It will make little difference to most Americans whether our troops are in Iraq (as McCain wants) or in Kuwait (as Obama can be pushed to suggest), so long as U.S. casualties are dropping. And with the economy in tough shape, Iraq will fade as the election’s be-all and end-all issue.
Which brings us to George W. Bush, the least popular president of modern times. Unlikely as it sounds, the soon-to-be former president needs to get out of the White House, reenter the political arena (much as it will pain him) and go around the country telling us two things: First, we are winning in Iraq; second, the economy is not as bad as most people think. With the Dow at around 12,800 and unemployment at 5 percent, Bush can make a good case that things aren’t really headed for the rocks. And he’ll have to. Republicans cannot win with an incumbent president with rock-bottom ratings.
Bush can help McCain, but that doesn’t mean that McCain should support Bush. As Bush makes the case for himself, McCain must put distance between them. A lot of distance. Once, McCain ran against Bush. But since then, he has basked in the glow of Bush’s warm welcome back to the mainstream of the party. Now McCain needs to free himself of Bush’s spell, go out again into the cold and show the country the difference between his agenda and Bush’s.
Meanwhile, McCain should highlight his credentials as a reformer and a maverick to attract Democrats and independents who worry about Obama. Forget about the base. It will be there. Obama’s liberalism, his pro-tax agenda and his proposed weakening of the USA Patriot Act — as well as fears that he would appoint to office people such as Rev. Wright and William Ayers, a former member of the Weather Underground — will all assure the full mobilization of the right. Immigration reform and McCain’s other acts of apostasy will be forgiven for the sake of beating Obama. So McCain needs to go after the swing voters:
Lash out at the corporate greed that landed us in the subprime mortgage crisis. Attack the golden-parachute pensions, the ill-gotten commissions and the maddening lending fees.
Go after credit card companies’ interest rates, late fees and consumer gouging.
Demand action on global warming (as McCain began doing last week, including hawking “eco-friendly” campaign T-shirts).
Call for a ban on all congressional earmarks, with their inevitable waste and pork, and insist that Congress appoint a permanent ethics special prosecutor to police itself.
Attack big tobacco, and blast the movie industry for helping sell its poison.
Pledge to make hedge-fund managers pay full earned-income taxes on their incomes, rather than the undeserved capital-gains treatment they currently get.
But not all of McCain’s moves should be aimed at pleasing the left. He should also:
Attack Obama for favoring federally subsidized health insurance for illegal immigrants.
Criticize Obama for slavish devotion to the teachers’ unions and willingness to compromise educational standards.
Go after the Democrats for their proposals to lower sentences for crack cocaine to make them equal to those for powder cocaine. (Instead, McCain should urge raising penalties for regular cocaine.)
McCain need not depart from long-held principles to wage any of these battles. He has always embraced these causes as a senator, and he needs to do so ever more forcefully as a candidate for president. The danger for McCain is that he will forget that he has already won the Republican nomination and retreat to safe GOP positions, which will alienate precisely the Democrats and independents whom he is uniquely positioned to attract.
Meanwhile, the right wing will carry the attack against Obama. McCain is not a mudslinging politician by nature, but he doesn’t need to be. The collected quotes of Rev. Wright will be a bestseller this summer. Obama once had to prove to us that he was not a Muslim; now he must convince us that he never really went to church much. Just as Sen. John F. Kerry was buffeted by veterans who had less than heroic memories of their service with him in Vietnam, so Obama will have to weather the recollections of his fellow parishioners. Count on several to surface and claim that they sat next to him during some particularly incendiary sermon.
The American public will not ultimately doubt Obama’s patriotism; that is a bridge too far. But we will come to think less of his credibility and strength as he fumbles his way through awkward denials. Obama’s ex-pastor may have faded in the primary fight with Clinton, but Wright will loom larger in the general election. McCain is in an excellent position to exploit the openings that Obama will offer — if, and only if, he moves to the center.