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The Democratic Strategist

Political Strategy for a Permanent Democratic Majority

Biographical Errors

I did an appearance today on the excellent syndicated public radio show, To the Point, to talk about the latest developments in Iraq and their impact on the presidential contest. Other guests included Peter Beinart of CFR and TNR; Bobby Ghosh of Time; Shawn Brimley of the Center for a New American Security; and GOP pollster John McLaughlin.
I was pretty much paired with McLaughlin, and thought I did reasonably well at swatting down his efforts to change the subject to the latest pseudo-stories about Clinton’s Kosovo experience and Obama’s “radical friends.”
But as often happens, my one real insight occurred to me just as the show ended. Listening to McLaughlin redundantly cite McCain’s military service record as establishing his vast superiority to the Democrats on national security issues, it finally hit me: what did this sound like? Yes, it sounded like John Kerry’s campaign talking points at key junctures of the 2004 race.
McCain may be in the process of making the same big mistake his friend Kerry made in 2004–making his biography the overriding centerpiece of his national security message. Sure, McCain’s war record attests to his character and patriotism, but hardly means he’d be an effective commander-in-chief. If that were the case, we’d only have military leaders as presidents. What McCain has to say about national security issues will, over time, have as great an impact on how he’s perceived by persuadable voters as endless clips of him in uniform or returning from the Hanoi Hilton. The tragedy of the Kerry campaign was that the man did have a pretty powerful grasp of national security challenges and what to do about them, but it never much got a hearing thanks to the back-and-forth about his own “story.”
In contrast, much of what John McCain’s been saying on the substance of national security and foreign policy strikes me as an odd combo of George W. Bush’s 2000 and 2004 messages: a multilateral, “humble” foreign policy based on the continuation and even expansion of the very single-minded military adventurism that’s made Bush a global pariah and empirical failure. Suggesting that the Democratic nominee isn’t fit to debate him on national security because he or she doesn’t have a war record isn’t going to cut it for John McCain.

2 comments on “Biographical Errors

  1. edkilgore on

    billd:
    No, I’m not aware of any legitimate beefs with McCain’s story, though it’s an open secret in DC that a fair number of his senatorial peers think McCain’s unsuited temperamentally to be president, perhaps because of his terrible experience as a POW.
    Keep in mind that there were two distinct aspects to the “swiftboating” of Kerry: claims that he didn’t earn his medals, and complaints about his post-service antiwar activities. It wasn’t all about his military record.
    Thanks for the comment.
    Ed Kilgore

    Reply
  2. billd on

    Ed
    you say
    The tragedy of the Kerry campaign was that the man did have a pretty powerful grasp of national security challenges and what to do about them, but it never much got a hearing thanks to the back-and-forth about his own “story.”
    But for McCain, this might well be a feature, not a bug — attempts to persuade voters that McCain is a flip flopper, has a weak grasp of national security strategy, is too eager to take us to war, etc. — will not break through because McCain, aided by the media, will keep the focus on his heroic story.
    Is there a way to attack McCain’s story itself, ala Swift Boat Veterans for Truth (without stooping to their level or dishonesty)?

    Reply

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