Monday, March 03, 2008

McCain Probably Would Prefer Obama, But....

Stanley Fish analyzes the presidential race and concludes, "I would bet that if McCain were pulling a lever in the Democratic primaries in Texas and Ohio, his vote would go into the Obama column." I think he's correct. But I think he oversells the reasons why that's the case and, in analyzing McCain's advantages over Obama, overlooks some key aspects of how they both came from the rear to their frontrunner positions. He speculates that McCain's position(s) on the war will transform it into a "Republican plus."
The reason is that McCain’s position on the war, as on so many other issues, looks in (at least) two directions.

On the one hand, he voted to authorize the invasion. On the other, he consistently disagreed with the administration’s prosecution of the war in general and with the judgment of defense Secretary Rumsfeld in particular. And on the third hand, he advocated for a course of action that was at last implemented in the so-called “surge,” and with some success.
I'm not sure why that argument would apply to Obama and not Clinton, but let's take it at face value. Survey after survey shows that, whatever fruits the surge may have produced, the American public wants out of Iraq. There is no sign that we're going to further escalate "the surge", and at this point we seem to have reached something of a plateau. It is not apparent that we can withdraw "surged" troops without backsliding. There is a very real concern that our commitments in Iraq are degrading our military, and there is plenty of evidence (such as the relaxation of restrictions on recruitment of people with medical ailments and criminal records) that suggests this to be the case.

But perhaps all of that is too nuanced for an election campaign? Fish imagines,
McCain can ask, Don’t you see that the situation has changed in recent months, and shouldn’t a responsible leader adjust his or her stance according to the facts on the ground?
The obvious response to this is that (a) things changed after the surge, but have not changed in recent months, and there is very little sign that Iraq is headed toward a form of stability that can be maintained without the continued presence of 100,000+ U.S. troops, and that the McCain "We could be there for 100 years" policy is a post-surge policy. As I see it, McCain does not benefit by introducing an argument that only highlights that "improvement" at best means "we're no longer losing ground", but that he has no strategy for either winning or cutting our losses. His hyperbolic overstatements that helped lead us into the war won't help him - contrast an early clip of him raving about how easy and cheap the war will be with his more recent "100 years, maybe forever" commitment to the war, and you have a powerful anti-McCain campaign ad.
And he can add, I too had my doubts about the conduct of the war, but now a policy I long advocated has been put in place with good results.
And that can be contrasted with all of the promises, "Things will be better in a few months; we'll know by the fall; we'll know in six months...."-type statements by pretty much every supporter of the surge. How does McCain respond to, "Your strategy bore some initial fruit, but we've not seen any substantial improvement for more than a year - what's your next move?" We already know his answer - I don't think it makes him electable.
The parts of McCain’s story, even with one or two twists and turns, fit nicely into a coherent narrative that brings credit to him in every chapter. I was resolute in the beginning, I demurred for a while but for good reasons, and now I am resolute again, and you can trust me because, in this area especially, I know what I’m doing. He can rehearse this narrative without apologizing for anything and then turn around to Obama and (borrowing from Clinton’s attacks on him), declare: You, on the other hand, don’t know what you’re doing, as everything you say, not only about the war, but about the conduct of foreign policy, proves. (He and President Bush are already pushing this line in anticipation of Obama’s nomination.)
And Obama can respond, "Being resolute in one failed policy or another is neither a sign of experience nor good judgment." (Perhaps Obama's ad can mention how McCain embraces one failed Bush policy after another. The Bush-McCain plot has already run off-course with the Bush Administration adopting what had to that point been depicted by McCain (and Clinton) as one of Obama's naive, silly ideas.

Fish goes on to surmise that on the issues, McCain is too much like a Democrat to inspire voters to vote for Obama instead of him.
The criticisms of McCain made by his primary opponents – he twice voted against Bush’s tax cuts, he cooperated with Ted Kennedy on immigration reform and with Russ Feingold on campaign-finance reform, he said that waterboarding was torture and should not be used, he scorned fundamentalist Christian leaders, he supported stem cell research, he opposed a constitutional amendment banning same sex marriage, he expressed doubts about Samuel Alito – cannot be appropriated by Obama because these are his positions, too.
Ah yes, the various issues which cause some right-wingers to become apoplectic and call McCain a "liberal." I've already mentioned how common ground can be used to positively camaign against McCain. Ads in the states most concerned about border security describing how President Obama will be able to work with Republican leaders, such as John McCain, to break through the gridlock on immigration reform. And 527's can have even more fun, running ads about how McCain will allow the Bush tax cuts to expire so we can get back to balancing the budget - something that will likely inspire fierce denials from John "I was against tax cuts and budget deficits before I was for them" McCain.

And if you want to go negative, whatever McCain's history of distancing himself from "agents of intolerance", he's currently doing his best to embrace as many as he can reach. One set of ads can work to undermine him as a hypocrite who actually opposes religion, and wants the government to pay for stem cell research and recognize same-sex marriage; another can depict him as a hypocrite who will abandon any sense of principle or ethics to embrace hateful religious leaders, as long as it brings him votes. Without too much difficulty, he can also be forced to take a clear position on abortion rights - he's against them, but many people don't seem to realize that.

I suspect that the Bush Administration will coax the Iraqis into trying to demonstrate "progress" by passing legislation or taking other nominal steps that do not actually do a thing to improve the situation on the ground; Obama will have to deal with that type of "progress". But I also suspect that absent real progress in Iraq, McCain has nothing to offer on that issue and his commitment to indefinite war will weigh down his campaign. Whether or not Obama manages to maintain the same level of enthusiasm behind his campaign, I don't sense that there is much (if any) enthusiasm behind McCain. Am I missing something? Pretty much everything McCain could historically offer to the political center is either undermined by his more recent flip-flopping or by its alienating him from voters on the political right.

One thing that is clear from the campaign to date is that many people (myself included) underestimated Obama as a political candidate. One of the things that has impressed me about Obama is how fast he is to respond to even modest attacks, and find ways to defuse them. McCain has made himself very vulnerable to counterattack.

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