MAY 30, 2008
Apropos my question about McCain's cynicism, Mark Schmitt has an interesting piece in The American Prospect arguing that conservatism has been so discredited that McCain's only hope of winning will be a kind of right-wing identity politics that pits "Americans" versus "others," with Obama playing the role of chief "other."
Ed Kilgore adds a couple good points in his riff on the Schmitt piece over at The Democratic Strategist:
There's a pretty clear historical precedent for the strategy that McCain is likely to pursue: Jimmy Carter's 1980 campaign. Carter faced a political landscape just as forbidding as McCain's today: a weak economy, plunging U.S. strength and prestige around the world, an exceptionally sour public mood, and a restless and uninspired party "base." Unsurprisingly, Carter staked his re-election on an effort to make the contest a referendum on all the doubts and fears raised by Ronald Reagan. His Convention Acceptance speech was built on the theme of "The Two Futures," a forthright appeal to voters to forget about the previous four years and focus on the scary prospects of a Reagan presidency. That was also Carter's approach in the one 1980 presidential debate, in which his "two futures" argument was decisively trumped by Reagan's simple "are you better off?" formulation of the case for change.
Perhaps John McCain is in a better position than the 1980 incumbent Carter to offer a minimum case that he represents some degree of "change," but the odds are that his candidacy will depend on doing a better job than Carter at frightening voters about his opponent.
And, in a subsequent post, he adds:
There are two ways to "capture the center" in electoral politics. One way is to occupy it with popular and transpartisan policy positions that create the impression that the candidate is bigger than his or her party, and is in alignment with the public's needs and aspirations. (That, of course, runs the risk of discouraging the party base.) The other way is to push your opponent out of "the center" with attacks on him or her as "extremist," which has the added benefit of helping to fire up your own base. ...
Can John McCain really occupy the political center in the course of a long general election campaign? It's doubtful. His "centrist" reputation is largely the product of a brief moment in his career--his 2000 nomination campaign--and the friends (in the news media) and enemies (in the conservative movement) that moment earned him. He's spent much of this electoral cycle so far erasing all the positions that once made him look like a "maverick," engaging in conspicuous love-ins with the high poohbahs of conservative economic and cultural orthodoxy. And it's very likely that McCain's long honeymoon with the news media is coming to an end, in part because of clever and systematic Democratic efforts to upbraid the media for the "free ride" they've given the Arizonan, and in part because this year's Democratic nominee, unlike the last two, is not a man the media instinctively dislike (au contraire)
Moreover, McCain's most distinctive policy position going into the general election is his identification with the idea of "victory" in Iraq. That will continue to be a very hard sell.
So given John McCain's positioning, and a political and financial landscape which will deny him any breaks, it's simply hard to deny that his best bet will be to try to push Obama out of the center, which is what conservative opinion outlets and operatives are going to do anyway.
I agree with pretty much everything these guys write. The only thing I'd add is that the fundamentals are so lousy for McCain I'm not sure pushing Obama out of the center with a right-wing version of identity-politics is going to cut it. I think he's got to play games on foreign policy, too--namely, talk about Iraq a lot less, talk about terrorism and Ahmadinejad a lot more. (I say this aware that he's been talking about Ahmadinejad quite a bit.) Problem is (at least if you're a Republican), I don't think McCain wants to go completely neanderthal on foreign policy. I think he wants to debate the merits of the surge, to talk about the path to victory in Iraq. And I don't think that's going to serve him very well.
Ed implies that the right-wing identity politics might overcome his strong identification with Iraq. I'm not sure it can unless he weakens the Iraq association, which he's given no hint he's willing to do.