Below, my colleague Jonathan Chait makes the case that John McCain just had a pretty good week. I agree--and would expand on one point in particular.
Last week, when Barack Obama announced he was opting out of the public financing system for campaigns, a lot of pundits predicted it wouldn't have much resonance. After all, when was the last time voters thought about campaign finance reform when they were in the voting booth? But the significance of the decision was in what it said about Obama's character--or, at least, what people think it says about Obama's character.
The more voters think of Obama as an ordinary politician, making decisions based primarily on what's most likely to get him elected, the harder it will be for Obama to present himself as an outsider trying to change Washington. And while it's true most Americans simply don't pay that much attention to these sorts of details, reporters certainly do. They have more than a little something to do with Obama's public image.
None of which is to say Obama made the wrong decision, strategically, when he opted out of public financing. Like President Bush, Obama seems to grasp the importance of enduring short-term political turmoil for long-term political gain. And even if Obama does start to lose some of his luster as a reformer of politics, that may, perversely, work to his advantage--because it will force him to focus even more on his policy ideas.
Obama's advantage over McCain on policy strikes me as no weaker, and perhaps even stronger, than his advantage on character. (Remember, McCain has at least a little credibility as a reformer, thanks to his work on campaign finance.) But I believe that a campaign based heavily on policy ideas would, if successful, put Obama in a stronger position to actually enact those policies once elected.
Yes, I know political scientists are skeptical that elections produce mandates. I disagree. But that's a topic for another day.