Archive for June 9th, 2008

McCain vs. Obama

Of all the potential match ups for this fall’s election, I’ve thought for a long time that a McCain-Obama match up would be the most fascinating. The two insurgent candidates of their own parties, with vastly different backgrounds and capacities, offering Americans a real choice. Pundits right now are all over the board on how to handicap this election. McCain has been compared to Bob Dole by those who see Obama coasting to victory, while Obama has been compared to Michael Dukakis by those who think he won’t be able to handle the spotlight given his lack of experience. So what will it be?

At this point, the smart money has to be on Obama. Not only will he get a bounce after the ringing endorsement by Hillary Clinton, which had even her detractors singing her praises, but McCain has had a rough couple of months. He’s been mostly out of the news, and when he makes the news it’s some kind of gaffe or someone on his campaign having connections to lobbyists. I thought his desire to give a speech on the night of the final Democratic primary contests was clever — make sure voters know it’s all about who will face him, and bring home a compelling message. Instead it was one of the worst speeches I’ve seen in this campaign, accentuating his age and apparent lack of mastery of detail. McCain is starting to look like a weak candidate.

While the right wing is all aflutter about Rev. Wright, rumors of a Michelle Obama video (sort of like the 1988 rumors running around that a photo could come out of Kitty Dukakis burning a US flag), and vague claims about his “associations,” pointing to a one time fundraiser (Rezko) for Obama who is now in jail, these things are minor. First they are old news; scandals from primary seasons usually diminish in import as the general election takes shape. Also they are all ‘guilt by association’ attempts, and those rarely hurt candidates — lookat all the dirt thrown at Clinton in 1992. If right wing talk radio wants to go on and on about so-called ‘black liberation theology’ as something that will poison his candidacy, for most of the electorate that’s all noise; they’ll focus on what Obama says and does. The right thinks Obama is strange and unqualified, and they assume the rest of the country will too. That’s as naive as the left thinking that the rest of the country will see Obama as the one true beckon of hope the way Obama’s strongest supporters do. Most people whose votes are still open will look at the campaign, and make judgments based on the debates and the way the media covers it.

McCain’s strengths are that he is a maverick in a year people want change, he has always appealed to independents and even Democrats, and in general people believe he says what he means. He is probably closest to the hier of the Reagan legacy, having fought alongside Reagan in the 80s, and maintaining that general ideology. He is likable, and a former war hero. Unlike the other Republicans who had been running, one can see him having real appeal. Obama on the other hand is relatively untested, was shown by Clinton to have weaknesses in the experience factor and in appealing to the working class — precisely the voters McCain seems poised to gain. On paper, this looks like a victory for McCain.

On paper, Obama didn’t stand a chance in the Democratic primary vs. Hillary Clinton. That suggests one should not underestimate Obama. The battle isn’t fought on paper.

McCain supporters should be troubled by the fact there is a lot of talk in the campaign about making this an election about foreign policy and national security. Their argument is “this is an era of terrorism and we’re at war, dare we trust this to some one as inexperienced as Barack Obama” (subtext — look at his background, Indonesia, Kenya, Kansas…weird name, he’s black…unsafe!) Yet while this seems unbeatable to those who truly put military and foreign policy issues first, rarely are those the issues which win an election. Moreover, in 2008 people are more concerned with the economy, the direction the country is going, and what the future will bring. McCain doesn’t seem to offer much there so far — and the Democrats have used that, plus his hawkish approach to foreign policy to connect him with Bush and label him “McSame.” After all, given how the Iraq war has pushed Bush’s approval ratings into the gutter, McCain would probably be smart to avoid focusing the electorate on that issue!

All Obama has to do to trump the foreign policy/security card is to be a master of details in the debates, make a compelling case, and forcefully tell McCain that he has it wrong, explaining why. McCain doesn’t seem to do as well when he’s confronted with details and a real argument, and his attack on Obama so far remains either vague, or based on things Obama claims are simply false (e.g., he wants unconditional talks with Ahmadinejad). If Obama sounds on top of foreign policy in the debates, and McCain sounds vague or too much like George W. Bush, Obama won’t win over everyone, but could satisfy the swing voters.

It also may not take much to satisfy them. If Obama makes a coherent argument for change and reform, and if the public mood remains as dour as it is (and if oil prices stay high), there will be a groundswell of people willing to even gamble on a relatively unknown for a new direction. In that case people will want to be assured Obama understands foreign and security policy, and all he’ll have to do is show that he can talk about it with confidence, coherence, and knowledge. And, given that Obama has proven a quick study on policy issues and he has some of the best foreign policy advisors out there, I suspect he can deliver.

McCain proved very resilient to go from appearing dead in the summer of 2007 to shocking everyone with his early victory in the GOP primary season, and Obama does have potential negatives which could turn this around. But right now in a country yearning for change, young voters appearing ready to actually go out and not only vote, but be active, and McCain one of the oldest candidates ever, 25 years Obama’s senior, Democrats have to be feeling pretty good now. Moreover, unless McCain can find a way to connect with voters, he might find himself as outmatched in communication skills as Carter was by Reagan.

In 1980 with a country in a similar mood, Ronald Reagan’s GOP convention in Detroit had the theme “Together A New Beginning.” Obama might be wise to coopt that theme; 2008 could be the Democrat’s 1980.