DICK MORRIS’ ’08 PLAY-BY-PLAY Volume 1, #35

By Dick Morris on September 8, 2008


Volume 1, #35

September 8, 2008


To read the polls, you wouldn’t think much changed after the two party conventions. Held back to back, Obama and the Democrats moved up during their gathering and then appear to have lost all of their gains during the Republican convention. For John McCain and his party, the nomination of Sarah Palin certainly energized his followers, but he seems to face the same tied race after the exchange of conventions that he faced before them.

But, beneath the surface poll data, the post-convention environment has indeed altered dramatically in McCain’s direction.

Obama’s failure to nominate Hillary for vice president and McCain’s bold gamble in turning to Sarah Palin have put the female vote more into play than it ever was before the conventions. Going into the convention period, Obama was trailing among female voters over forty by four points – an unheard of posture for a Democratic candidate for president. Normally, a Democrat will win women over forty by more than ten points. Oddly, the Democratic nominee is running well ahead among women under 40 and is doing about as well among men of all ages as a Republican should – he’s losing them by a little. But among middle aged and older women, he was in deep trouble even before the conventions.

But the conventions dug Obama into a much deeper hole among female voters. Three factors appear to have contributed to his problems:

  1. He passed over Hillary Clinton for vice president without so much as a glance in her direction. She was not vetted or even considered. Yet polls showed that most Democrats wanted an Obama-Clinton ticket. When Hillary gave a great speech at the Democratic convention, the yearning to have her on the ticket was palpable on the floor of the convention. Had Obama opted for Hillary, he would undoubtedly have come to regret it. All of Bill’s dirty laundry about his financial dealings since the presidency would have become fair game. And, if he were elected, the west wing would soon have become a war zone. But he was already suspect among older women because he had challenged and defeated the candidate they overwhelmingly favored for the presidency and, by stiffing her for the vice presidency as well, he appeared to give the needs and concerns of women short shrift.
  2. When McCain named Sarah Palin he capitalized on the resentment of women toward Obama over his treatment of Hillary. That McCain sought their votes and was catering to their concerns was obvious in his selection of the Alaska governor. But the juxtaposition of Obama’s choice of Biden, when Hillary was available, and McCain’s reaching over the heads of Romney and other possible nominees to tap Sarah Palin did the Democrats no good.
  3. But all of these currents were exacerbated by the concentrated and highly personal fire directed at Palin by the media and the Democrats after her selection. Accused of everything from neglecting her children to subjecting her daughter to scandal, she and her family were scorched by a Democratic-leaning media. News of Sarah’s husband’s DWI twenty years ago, the marital fight between Sarah’s sister and brother-in-law, and the false rumor that Sarah had a list of books she wanted banned in Alaska all made their way through the Internet within hours of her designation. Women resented this ordeal by fire and were, in turn, enthused by Sarah’s speech at the convention. The fire directed at her hyped the ratings of the speech and Sarah found herself speaking to almost as many people as Obama had watching during his acceptance speech.

By the time the dust settled, McCain had a solid shot at closing or even reversing the gender gap that has been a fact of American political life ever since the Roe v Wade decision in the early 70s.

But the convention altered the strategic construct of the race dramatically as well. The premise of the entire Obama attack on McCain was that he was just an extension of the Bush Administration. Speaker after speaker at the Democratic convention hammered at the theme that a McCain first term would really be a Bush third term.

McCain set out to disprove this contention and sever the linkage between Bush’s unpopular presidency and his candidacy. And he succeeded brilliantly. From his poignant biography with its heroic story of his POW days, to his selection of a reform-minded woman as his running mate, to his acceptance speech and the supporting speeches of Fred Thompson, Rudy Giuliani, and Joe Lieberman, McCain painted the differences between himself and Bush in vivid colors.

He debunked the Obama claim that Bush and McCain voted together 90% of the time by pointing out that 90% of the Senate votes are unanimous. He highlighted the various areas of his disagreement with Bush over the years. These include:

  • McCain backed the surge when Bush was resistant
  • McCain backed tough regulation of tobacco and most Republicans opposed it
  • McCain fought for a ban on torture in terrorist investigations over Administration objections.
  • McCain opposes earmarks and refuses to propose any
  • McCain has harshly criticized Bush’s spending policies and his budget deficits
  • McCain wanted tougher corporate governance reforms and protection of worker pensions.
  • McCain submitted tough climate change and energy independence legislation, co-sponsored by Lieberman that Bush opposed.
  • McCain was the author of campaign finance reforms Bush opposed and only reluctantly signed.
  • McCain was one of fourteen Senators that ended the deadlock over judicial nominations and led to the designation of moderate judges and a streamlining of the confirmation process.

This independent John McCain, the self-styled “maverick”, has been in remission during the GOP primary campaign as he ran to the right in order to win the primaries. But he has always been a maverick in the Senate and he picked up where he had left off during the convention.

Without being able to link McCain and Bush, Obama has no margin for error in handling McCain’s negative attacks. If the race had been Obama v Bush, no amount of negative advertising against Obama would have made much difference. Voters would simply be determined to risk it, take their chances, and vote for Obama if the alternative was four more years of Bush. But by presenting himself as an alternative vehicle for change and highlighting his record in shaking up Washington, McCain closes the gap between himself and Obama. Now doubts about the Democrat’s experience, qualifications, plans to raise taxes, and weakness in dealing with terrorism are all likely to push voters toward McCain. They never would have backed Bush, but they might well switch to McCain.


Now McCain should pound away with negatives on Obama focusing on three key issues: taxes, energy, and terrorism.

Polls show that a majority of voters disbelieve Obama’s claim that he will not raise taxes on 95% of Americans. Indeed, the latest Rasmussen survey indicates that 56% believe he will raise their personal income taxes. It is a short leap from there to predict economic disaster if taxes are raised as broadly and as high as Obama has predicted. With the possibility of economic catastrophe looming ahead, voters may be reluctant to trust Obama’s tax and spending plans and may worry that he will sink the ship. Obama’s class-based rhetoric worked will among Democrats but cuts much less muster with Independents. When Fred Thompson characterized his tax program as saying “I will only take water from this side of the bucket not from the other side,” he struck a responsive chord.

If things are bad, the insurgent has the advantage. But if things could get a lot worse in a hurry, voters may not be willing to take a chance on a new candidate with an untried and untested approach.

The energy issue has become a class issue in our politics. Middle income voters feel that the elites are so anxious to save the global environment that they won’t permit oil drilling and don’t even want gas prices to come down. Energy independence and climate change, once parallel causes, are now in sharp conflict splitting the nation along class, age, and party lines. The older women, who are the core of Obama’s problem, are particularly sensitive to this issue.

Finally, Obama’s failure to show any strength in foreign policy and his appeal to both Georgia and Russia to “show restraint” in the recent invasion (where McCain spoke out forthrightly against Russian aggression) raise doubts among voters. As the threat of Iran going nuclear increases and the possibility of war in Eastern Europe between newly independent countries and a resurgent Russia increases, Americans may be loathe to trust an ingénue with foreign policy. Particularly if Israel takes military action against Iran before the election, a hot foreign environment could dictate switches to McCain.

To date, the McCain campaign has pursued targets of opportunity in its paid advertising, capitalizing on the embarrassment du jour of the Obama campaign. But the time has come for more discipline and focus to begin the slow pounding away at Obama with negative ads that raise doubts about his inexperience and liberalism.



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