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The Democratic Strategist

Political Strategy for a Permanent Democratic Majority

McCain’s Influence on Democratic Debate

Since many members of the chattering classes have already weighed in with general impressions of last night’s excellent Clinton-Obama debate from Los Angeles (Noam Scheiber’s take was reasonably close to my own), I thought I’d mention just one factor that hasn’t gotten a lot of attention: the impact on the Democratic debate of John McCain’s emergence as the likely Republican nominee.
It was most noticeable on the immigration issue, where the cramped defensiveness of past exchanges gave way to a wonkathon that mostly centered on the question of the extent to which illegal immigrants are depressing low-end wages (though Wolf Blitzer made every effort to drag the candidates back to the tedious and highly misleading question of drivers’ licences). The simple reality is that John McCain’s history on immigration reform largely takes the issue off the table in a general election contest. It could still play hell in down-ballot races, but unless McCain does a full-scale massive flip-flop, immigrant-bashing won’t be a major feature of the presidential discussion.
Just as importantly, McCain’s extremist position on Iraq is setting up a contrast that should benefit the Democratic nominee. It’s no wonder that his “100 years” remark on the duration of the U.S. combat deployment in Iraq came up a couple of times in last night’s debate. And McCain’s championship of the Iraq “surge,” which he’s now mentioning in every other breath, is another large target. Obama’s litany on post-surge conditions in Iraq (“we’re now back to merely intolerable levels of violence with a dysfunctional government”) last night was a good preview of what we’re likely to hear from either Democrat in response to McCain’s “victory” talk.
Given the widespread concern of a lot of Democrats about McCain’s viability in a general-election contest, it’s important to keep in mind that he brings some specific weaknesses to the table as well, even if his age and temperament don’t wind up becoming problems for him.
Speaking of partisan contrast: Anyone who watched the two California debates over the last two nights had to come away deeply impressed by the superior level of discourse in the Democratic event, and its general spirit of party unity. It ended, after all, with the audience practically coming unglued with joy at the suggestion of a Clinton-Obama or Obama-Clinton ticket. Had anyone suggested a McCain-Romney or Romney-McCain ticket at the end of the remarkably shallow Republican grudge match in Simi Valley, it would have been considered a very bad joke.
Just yesterday, Karl Rove penned an article for The Wall Street Journal that concluded:

Both Democrats and Republicans are in spirited and, at times, heated contests. The difference is Democrats are running a nasty race that has as its subtext race and gender. The Republican race, on the other hand, is a serious debate about serious ideas.

I suspect the Boy Genius would like to take those words back today.

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