Can McCain Come Back Again?
Friday, October 17, 2008 at 6:00 am
There are 18 days until the end of Sen. John McCain’s presidential campaign. Having begun this campaign as the clear front-runner — not only for the Republican nomination but for the presidency — and as the supposedly moderate force who could bring order to Washington, the Arizona senator finds himself the odd man out. He is out of time and out of step, a figure paralyzed by the events around him.
It’s hard to imagine that when September began, the American people viewed McCain as an experienced leader, the steady hand. People knew what they had in him.
With three presidential debates and “Joe the Plumber” behind him, McCain is in a spot that seemed unimaginable only weeks ago. Down by as many as 14 percentage points in the most recent New York Times-CBS News poll to “that one,” otherwise known as Sen. Barack Obama, McCain, who has resurrected his political career from near-ruin before, must somehow pull off his best rescue operation yet. He must do what many deem impossible — become the person who will right the nation’s economic fortunes and the leader who will save us from our failings, financial and otherwise.
“John McCain does best when he proposes ideas that don’t seem like Republican or Democratic ideas, but they’re the right ideas in simple terms,” said Leslie Sanchez, a GOP strategist and former Bush administration adviser. “If he can continue to move forward in a simple way that’s bipartisan even to the point where Barack Obama says, ‘I agree with that too,’ that’s the right kind of momentum. It shows him taking command of the issues. The complexities of these economic plans are lost on many of these voters. That’s when they look for character. That’s when they ask, ‘Can he be bipartisan? Can he get something done?’ It’s a long shot — but it’s his only shot.”
McCain’s self-rescue effort began in earnest yesterday, with a new ad that, once and for all, severed his ties with the Bush administration. Titled “Fight,” the GOP presidential nominee speaks directly to the camera: “The last eight years haven’t worked very well, have they? I’ll make the next four better. Your savings, your job and your financial security are under siege.
“We need a new direction, and I have a plan,” McCain goes on to say. “Your savings. We’ll rebuild them. Your investments. They’ll grow again.”
And, um, yeah, how will you do this?
“I don’t think he understands the issue well enough to get specific,” said Republican strategist Ed Rollins, who helped President Ronald Reagan win 49 states as his national campaign director in 1984. “But he needs to talk about the economy and be able to relate to ordinary people. I would have him just talking about the economy, saying that Obama is going to raise taxes and there’s nothing worse than a tax increase, regardless of who you’re taxing, and this will make this recession deeper.
“He should be out there saying, ‘Barack Obama is going to add all these big spending programs, and I’m the line of defense against it,” Rollins continued, “Otherwise, you’re heading back to the days of FDR and Lyndon Johnson.’”
The truth of the matter is that McCain has had months to say just that — and didn’t. Following his victory in the spring primaries, he became a ghost candidate while Obama and Sen. Hillary Rodham Clinton slugged it out for the Democratic nomination. Had he aggressively stepped forward, he could have articulated a domestic vision night after night and had it stamped in people’s minds when the general campaign began.
Even as late as July, Obama gave McCain a big opening. As the junior senator from Illinois toured the Middle East and Europe, he left McCain alone in the New World, with a traveling press corps absolutely desperate for news.
But instead of laying out an economic plan and coherent vision, the McCain camp toyed with reporters. Among the highlights?
The campaign leaked to columnist Robert Novak that McCain would announce his vice presidential pick. And the same day that Obama spoke to 200,000 people in Berlin, McCain went to a German restaurant in Columbus, Ohio,
Even within the last few weeks, as the tone of the campaign grew dark and the economy descended into recession, McCain punted when given the opportunity to rise to the occasion. Instead of talking about economic relief, he emphasized a portrayal of Obama as a scary, untrustworthy man. Nearly all the ads and stump speeches by pit bull and running mate Alaska Gov. Sarah Palin centered on Obama’s ties to a former Weather Underground member and now college professor, William Ayers. If one followed the McCain campaign, one would think we were a solvent nation.
“He was going to run on national security,” Rollins said the day after the third and final presidential debate. “What you saw last night was this complete disdain for Obama, basically saying, ‘What’s this kid doing on the stage? I’ve been running for this office for 10 years; served in the Senate for 21 years; been in Washington for 26, and served my country for 55 years.’ I think he thought, because he came back in the primaries, he could come back here.”
Given McCain’s history, the Obama campaign has continued to put its foot on the throttle. Late yesterday afternoon, a mass email from Joe Biden to supporters said that, “Anyone who tells you this election is already decided is dead wrong. Let’s not forget the 2000 election, when Al Gore was up by double digits in October. The surest way to lose a race is to slow down when the finish line is in sight.”
Similarly, as my colleague Ari Melber reported, Obama sternly told the assembled crowd at a breakfast fund-raiser at New York’s Metropolitan Club, “For those of you who are feeling giddy, or cocky, or think this is all set, I just have two words for you — New Hampshire. I’ve been in these positions before, when we were favored and the press starts getting carried away, and we end up getting spanked.”
But the question is: What kind of paddle can McCain wield?
Unlike Rollins, fellow Republican strategist Tony Marsh believes McCain should become Mr. Specific. Marsh says McCain should develop a series of points that he can take to the stump and drive forward just as Obama has done all these months.
As someone who’s traveled a good deal with both campaigns, I can pretty much recite Obama’s economic plan by heart. After a McCain town-hall meeting, I leave with ideas that Russia is bad, tidal power is the wave of the future and Gen. David Petraeus is an American hero who will somehow lead us to victory in Iraq.
“I’ve always thought he needs a very specific plan,” Marsh said. “A five- or 10-point plan he can talk about while showing empathy for what families and small businesses are going through. He still needs to do that. But he could do all the television advertising he wants, and Obama will still outspend him. I’m not sure he has enough weapons in the arsenal to promote a strong strategy — even if he had one.
“You know words people use are so important,” Marsh continued, “and last night, when McCain talked about redistributing wealth, it almost sounded like he was talking about spreading the wealth around — which is what McCain wants to do. The difference is Obama wants to move money from one class of people to another class of people. McCain wants to do it by helping small businesses and by creating more jobs and demand in the labor market, and assure that wages go up. That’s how you spread wealth.
“I think [McCain] had a tremendous opportunity to make this point, and he failed,” Marsh said, “But … this environment is disadvantageous to Republicans. I think Barack Obama, pressing that a McCain victory is a third Bush term, is a very effective argument for him. It’s untrue — and Obama refuses to recognize the huge difference between McCain and George W. Bush — but it’s been a very effective argument.”
What McCain faces in these remaining weeks would make even the most optimistic, most economically coherent, candidate turn from the blinding glare. He remains the nominee of the party in power, whose president continues to pursue an unpopular war while the country braces for the worst economic crisis since the Great Depression. Foreclosed homes now dot many neighborhoods across the country, and the U.S. manufacturing base is a shadow of its former self. The savings of millions have shrunk, and the country that once believed it could shop its way out of a crisis now finds many of its citizens in homes they cannot afford, fearing for the future.
“The election’s over,” said historian David Greenberg, author of “Nixon’s Shadow: The History of an Image.” “I honestly think there’s nothing [McCain] can do. He’s tried so many different lines on the economy; he basically squandered an opportunity in this crisis to show Obama was inexperienced and not ready. But McCain’s performance has been erratic and uncertain. Everything’s breaking Obama’s way. It’s like trying to hold back a tidal wave.”
Put in this position, McCain must use all his might, will and ambition to stand strong against this wave. At the end, he can reinvent himself as the commander everyone believed him to be when this race began.
It is likely to be the toughest battle of McCain’s public life. And he will have the scars to prove it.
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