Don't count John McCain out. He just might have the right negatives to win.
Can John McCain win? A short sentence that packs many surprises for McCain and his camp. First there is the surprise that the question is being asked in the summer of 2008, when just one year ago stories headlined "John McCain: Dead Man Walking" foretold a political obituary. Second comes the surprise that McCain's general election opponent does not hold a prohibitive lead in a race all but declared for the Democrat since early 2007.
Yet here he is, a handful of points behind Barack Obama, who is fresh off his "unity bounce" after the brutal Democratic primary.
Whether McCain can close the gap is another matter. Indeed, McCain's list of negatives is long, and some of his major detractors hail from the Republican base, with daily discussions of defecting Obamacons and talk radio declarations that true conservatives should sit out 2008. For his part, this is the natural consequence of McCain's delight in jabbing a finger in conservative eyes on everything from campaign finance and immigration reform to climate change. In his 2000 run, McCain chose the Virginia primary for a shot at "agents of intolerance" like Pat Robertson and Jerry Falwell (tying them to Al Sharpton in a singular act of ecumenical insult). As prelude to 2008, McCain chose to step forward to defend Bush's Iraq surge when others were running for exit strategies. For many members of the Republican base, the name emblazoned on McCain's campaign bus may as well be the Crazy Talk Express.
Yet McCain may be, as analyst Jay Cost puts it, just the right candidate for Republicans to turn "probable defeat into possible victory." Seen from this angle, it's tempting to say of McCain that he has all the right negatives for 2008.
Start with the ostensible negative that McCain exits the primary season not only without having "solidified his base"—the better to play for the political center in the general election—but with no real hope that he will mend fences with many conservative detractors. This defies the conventional wisdom offered each electoral cycle: Play to your base to win the nomination, tack to the center to win the general.
By this conventional metric, McCain is road kill. Or maybe not. Segue to Democratic efforts to paint McCain as captive to GOP wing-nuts—a difficult narrative to make stick, though you won't be able to blame MoveOn.org for lack of trying. (If Ann Coulter didn't exist, the McCain campaign might need to invent her.) All of this helps position McCain as mildly right of the political center, befitting a man whose lifetime score from the American Conservative Union ranked him 39th among sitting senators in 2006. Obama, scored by National Journal—hardly anyone's idea of a Republican attack dog—as the most liberal senator in its 2007 rankings, will need more than his hoop skills to bump McCain out of his position in the center of the political lane.
It's 3 a.m. in America
But what about the issues? America is hungry for change, or so the pundits and Obama tell us. Ceding change to the charismatic Obama, Hillary Clinton sought to slake American's hunger for ... experience. Not much of a slogan. Will it work any better for McCain?
McCain's hope starts with the recognition that we've come a long way from Reagan's "Morning in America" campaign. In 2008, it's "3 a.m. in America," and no one quite knows what chaos the next phone call will bring.
Few pundits missed the fact that Clinton's ad in the final run-up to the Ohio-Texas contests skewered Obama in a way that might have replaced the Clinton tagline with: "I'm John McCain and I approve this message."
McCain's task now is to keep the focus on national security. He should exploit Obama's fly-anywhere, talk-anytime preference to parley without precondition with the likes of Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, even as it's taken forever to find time to visit Iraq for talks with Army Gen. David Petraeus. For many weeks, McCain scored points by counting the days since Obama's last Iraq visit, a two-day junket in January 2006. This underscored in a single stroke that Obama was clinging to Iraq "data" that was dated, presumably because it supported his campaign narrative. It also subtly questioned Obama's concern about connecting with our troops. Now that Obama has apparently elected to put Iraq on his destination list for a summer visit, McCain will be able to cast it as validating his larger point, even as he uses it as an opening to ask Obama either to admit that the surge is working (angering his Democratic base) or to downplay U.S. achievements (bad form for the "security moms" and moderate middle-America white marrieds who were the target of Clinton's 3 a.m. ad in the first place). Democrats who insist that 2008 will be about the economy understand that national security is McCain's issue. McCain's best campaign manager may prove to be Hillary Clinton.
But surely the economy breaks for Obama, not McCain, inheritor of a Bush legacy of soaring gas prices and a slumping economy. In fact, even economics can be a security issue for McCain, provided he can deny the Democratic effort to link high gas prices to one or another misstep of the Bush Administration. McCain's opportunity lies in broadening the issue by hinging the discussion on the fact that the rising middle classes of China and India and the resource politics of a resurgent Russia weren't caused by the White House. Rapidly rising demand for energy and other basic resources is a global phenomenon calling for a global strategy. McCain can fairly ask whether experience on the Illinois state legislature rules committee trumps his tenure on the Senate armed services and commerce committees for illuminating the global economic challenge.
Which Style Scores?
Yet policy is only part of the picture. What we're learning in the races of 2000, 2004 and 2008 is that American political affiliation seems increasingly to be a matter of lifestyle choice rather than policy planks. Whether this is an extension of the migration of brand-marketing from the retail commercial space to the political space, or perhaps the consumerization of politics, is a matter for a Harvard seminar. Suffice it to say that many political predilections these days are driven from somewhere deeper in the subcortex.
Here the temptation is to declare game over, advantage Obama, the very model of Kennedy cool, fist-bumping his wife Michelle, driving the lane in pick-up hoops games, emerging shirtless from the surf. Compare that to McCain, clumsy and stiff, first in the room to laugh at his own jokes (thankfully, as that's often the only way they can be identified as humor).
Put McCain behind a teleprompter and he looks like he's having flashbacks to a forced reading of a Vietcong propaganda text. But wait a moment: Put him in a plaid shirt and Navy cap atop a bale of hay, and he has the disarming charm that connects.
Contrast this to Obama's more cerebral approach: campaigning as community organizing. He ventures forth, Thomas Frank text in hand like a modern-day Margaret Mead notebook, into fly-over country, where the locals engage in strange election-year rituals in Iowa living rooms and at Pennsylvania pancake breakfasts. This is why Obama's unguarded "clinging to guns or religion" comment at a not-quite-closed-door San Francisco fundraiser resonated with the outside public who will never pay thousands per plate to sip chardonnay with the candidate. This remains the Democrats' cultural signifier, as it was when Ronald Reagan regaled audiences more than 40 years ago with his populist play against the "little intellectual elite in a far-distant capital" who believe they "can plan our lives for us better than we can plan them ourselves." Obama's affable regular-guy farm-belt banter—"Anybody gone into Whole Foods lately and see what they charge for arugula?"—only underscores the point.
Last—or perhaps first and last—comes character. This is not a zero-sum game, and Obama, the most inspired political rhetorician of our generation, clearly speaks to the aspirations of the electorate in ways that reach the better angels of our nature.
Obama's rhetorical range may be orchestral, but McCain's character comes through in minor key. From his very early use of the POW card in his first Arizona campaign—when he devastated his opponent's carpetbagger charge by noting that the longest he'd lived at the same address was his time at the Hanoi Hilton—to his Oprah-like ability to discuss his travails as a POW in contrast to Greatest Generation politicians (witness the rock-solid reticence of the first President Bush), McCain has proved that he can deploy his story of service to maximum political effect.
All of which brings us back to the question with which we began. Saying that McCain can win, of course, is not the same as saying he will. In the end, McCain's greatest advantage may be that running for the most important office in the world is only the second biggest challenge he has faced in his life.
So here he stands. Read last rites six months before the New Hampshire primary, written off by the Republican party establishment and riding the radioactive coattails of an unpopular president, John McCain enters the final lap of his final campaign clinging to the audacity of hope.
Daniel McGroarty, speechwriter to President George H.W. Bush, is principal of Carmot Strategic Group, a Washington, D.C.-based international business advisory firm.