Wednesday, February 20, 2008

Obama's Surge: Implications for McCain

Michael Medved assesses the implications of Barack Obama's win last night in the Wisconsin primary for the electoral strategy of the Republican nominee-in-waiting, John McCain:
With his unexpectedly decisive landslide victory in Wisconsin, Barack Obama has solidified his status as the Democratic frontrunner. His success owes less to his own political strategy than it does to a fatal mistake by Hillary Clinton. At the beginning of her campaign, Clinton made a decision to avoid an ideological battle with her rival and decided to frame the race as a choice between “experience” and “charisma,” between “work” and “words.” In other words she decided to fight Obama on personality, rather than the issues, and in terms of a compelling, appealing personality, Obama obviously wins. Clinton could have won an issues election – mobilizing the broad middle of the Democratic Party and leaving Obama to run to her left. She could have criticized him for preaching surrender on the war, for minimizing the reality of the terrorist threat, for calling unequivocally for big government and higher taxes, for rejecting the free trade heritage of Clintonism. Instead, she insisted that she and her opponent hardly differed on the issues, and it was only a question of who is better “prepared to take over as commander-in-chief from day one.” By emphasizing my “thirty-five years of work fighting for change” Hillary not only made herself sound older, but high-lighted the meaningless, trivial nature of the change she sought and, allegedly, achieved: most Democrats don’t like the results of the last thirty-five years of government policy....

John McCain needs to learn the lessons of Hillary Clinton’s failed campaign. If he tries to emphasize his obviously superior experience and preparation for the job, he’ll lose in a landslide....

McCain and the GOP can win the election, but only if they draw crisp, unmistakable distinctions on the issues. Voters should face big questions: do you think America will be safer if we surrender to terrorists in Iraq and elsewhere? Do you want to pay more in taxes to pay for a bigger government? Do you want to pay for your neighbor’s health insurance, or is the nation stronger when we emphasize individual responsibility? Do we want more freedom and opportunity or do we need more government supervision and regulation?

On these issues, on these crucial choices, Republicans can win. If McCain explains those choices clearly and persuasive (and I believe he will) then his problems with movement conservatives will take care of themselves.

If, on the other hand, he tries to run a campaign based on biography and personality, he’ll meet the same fate as Hillary Clinton. Unless McCain offers bold, positive, conservative vision for the future, and draws clear distinctions on the issues, then even this admirable war hero and maverick Naval aviator is, alas, likely to go down in flames.
I would only disagree slightly.

Medved might have added that Obama's success currently is found with core Democratic Party constituencies. He's mobilized the youth vote like no candidate has done before, and his message of change is more than that - it contains the elements of a social movement.

But a youth revolution is not inevitable this year, nor is it clear that such voter activism will bridge the generation gap between young and old in the general election (the Social Security cohort remains America's most active voting consituency).

McCain's not Clinton, and the Arizona Senator's appeal will be broader than Clinton's in the wider population. Moreover, much of Clinton's probem is her husband, Bill, and the electorate's pre-buyer's remorse on the possibility of four-more years of hyper-partisan political battle in the classic co-Cintonesque model.

McCain's coming off as a
Churchillian figure this year. With American forces deployed around the world - in both current, dangerous hot spots and decades-old alliance committments - qualities such as wise national security leadership offer potentially hard-to-beat political contrasts between the candidates. Add to that the fact that McCain out-campaigns opponents thirty years his junior, and the potential liabilities of the "age factor" are dramatically reduced.

(McCain lives for the hustings and he's not one to back down on issues of character, integrity, or patriotism, a style Obama may have a difficult time counteracting.)

Having said all this, McCain would be wise to follow Medved's issues-based model against Obama, but not to the point of neglecting his "Churchillian enigma," a potentially powerful source of voter appeal this election.