Many political campaigns run against the wrong candidate. The opportunity
to pick on a vulnerable target is so tempting that they are lured into attacking
someone who isn’t running. In 1992, the Republicans unleashed their convention
barrage at Hillary and left Bill unscathed. In 1996, Dole still ran against
Clinton the liberal and ignored the changes in his political positioning.
Campaigns go after the flaming red cape, so glittering a target, and leave the
That’s what the Democratic convention has been doing in Denver. They are so anxious to run against Bush, their animosity is so pent up, that they persist in running against a man who is not seeking a third term. In speech after speech, the Democrats knock the Bush record and then add, lamely, that McCain is the same as Bush. Or they call the McCain candidacy Bush’s third term. It was no accident — or Freudian slip — when Joe Biden spoke of John Bush instead of George in his litany of
This pattern of shooting at the decoy, not the duck, gives McCain a bold strategic opportunity. He can nullify the impact of the entire Democratic convention simply by distancing himself from Bush.
In other words, according to Morris, the Democrats were demonizing President Bush not McCain. This leaves McCain an opening. If McCain can distance himself from Bush, then he neutralizes that line of attack. If the Democrats are successful in tying the two of them together (how often have we heard that they vote 90% of the time together), then the Dems likely win.
Now, Howard Wolfson, fast becoming my favorite political analyst, concurs with the idea that it is McCain's job to distance himself as much as possible from Bush. Wolfson once pronounced that McCain needs to wake up each and every morning and figure out just how to put distance between himself and Bush. In fact, in his analysis last night, Wolfson believed that McCain failed to this because he didn't specifically mention Bush and specifically mention how McCain was different.
So, there you have it. The dynamic is clear, will McCain put enough distance between himself and Bush. What is not clear is how this can be done. McCain, in fact, has a rather recent role model in this endeavor, Nicholas Sarkozy. Sarkozy was a member of the Chirac government that was as universally despised as much as Bush's. Yet, he presented himself as the agent of change and even cast his opponent as a part of the problem. It's of course nearly impossible for McCain to present his opponent as being part of the problem, however putting distance between himself and Bush is a task he can handle.
Clearly, McCain disagrees with Wolfson that he has to bring up Bush's name and spell out how the two are different. It's likely McCain sees this much like any debate. The worst debate point is when someone says "you're wrong". Instead of saying the other person is wrong, a good point is to show how they are wrong. In much the same way, McCain is going to present an agenda that the McCain campaign hopes will be enough different from the Bush administration that the voters will draw that conclusion on their own.
Now, judging by McCain's speech, he will take my advice (yes I know he didn't get the advice from me) and focus on two specific points of distinction. The first point is domestic policy. He laid into the D.C. establishment, his fellow legislators, and even his own party on spending. He once again gave his famous line
we came to to change Washington and Washington changed us
He made a commitment to curb spending through cutting earmarks and wasteful and unproductive programs. This is a very effective theme. Fiscal conservatives abandoned the Republicans in 2006 over this very issue. He has long been a crusader against wasteful spending. Furthermore, Sarah Palin is cut from the same cloth as she has crusaded against wasteful spending since she got into politics. Furthermore, by doing so, he draws a distinction between himself and Senator Obama who loves to talk about all the new money he will spend and only pays lip service to ending wasteful spending. McCain wisely, and in my opinion correctly, also tied wasteful spending to corruption which he also promised to attack and go after. It is up to McCain to continue to hammer this message. If it is effective, he will pit his ticket against the D.C. establishment: Congress, the lobbyists, and the special interests.
The strategy is mutipronged. First, his maverick image along with Palin's image as being a politician that confronts the system play perfectly into creating this narrative. We are likely to see ads heavy on their record in standing up to wasteful spending and corruption. It's something both have to hammer on the campaign trail, but much more importantly, in the debates. Then, they need to tie their message of cutting wasteful spending to tax cuts. Remember, Senator McCain mostly opposed the original tax cuts because they weren't combined with spending cuts. H needs to present proper fiscal governance as efficient government followed by lower taxes. If they both effectively convey the message that they have a record of fighting wasteful spending and they will take that record to the White House it will also go a long way toward distancing McCain from Bush, who of course has a terrible record on such matters.
The second strategy is on foreign policy. Here is John McCain's mission. He needs to convince people that he was for the surge before President Bush was for the surge. This shouldn't be a difficult task because he was for the surge even before the President. John McCain didn't merely back the surge in the beginning of 2007 when it was politically inconvenient. He backed the same surge strategy in 2004 when it was even more politically inconvenient. In fact, nearly from the beginning of the war, it was McCain, alone, that said the Rumsfeld strategy wouldn't work. This put him on the wrong side of his own party for almost four years until the President arrived at the same strategy. McCain also pointed this fact in the speech last night. It is up to McCain to drill the point home that had we listened to his wisdom from the beginning there would be no withdrawal debate because our troops would already be withdrawn in victory.
The strategy on this is similar to that of spending. With years of foreign policy experience, a military background, and a generational military family, no one has more foreign policy credibility than John McCain. He needs to take that credibility and deliver the message that he has backed the surge not since 2007 but since 2004. He needs to make the case that he took a political risk not since 2007 but since 2004. In fact, as I write these words, I can see them being arranged as part of an effective advertisement, stump speech, and effectively delivered in the debates. If he does this effectively, he will also effectively distance himself from Bush.
Now, if you examine McCain's record there are a host of issues upon which he differs from Bush: global warming, torture, stem cell research (I think) are among them. That said, most of those issues are not ones upon which to make a platform which to distance McCain from Bush. Bush's horrible unpopularity comes from two things: wasteful spending and four brutal and ineffective years in Iraq. On both those issues, John McCain needs to stand up and say that he opposed the President (even if he doesn't actually say the President's name) and by doing so he will distance himself from the President. If he does this effectively, the next President of the United States will be John McCain.