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The Democratic Strategist

Political Strategy for a Permanent Democratic Majority

McCain and “American Identity”

The always-interesting Mark Schmitt has penned a fine essay for The American Prospect on the intellectual bankruptcy of contemporary conservatism, and the strong likelihood that the Republican Party is about to enter a period of significant decline, until such time as it can generate new ideas and leaders.
Unlike Mark, I haven’t had the time or patience to slog through the raft of recent books on the future of conservatism, so I’ll take his word for it that would-be conservative “reformers” like Ross Douthat, Reihan Salam, David Frum and Mickey Edwards haven’t come up with anything revolutionary, and that Republican politicians and “base” voters aren’t willing to embrace much change in any event.
But Mark makes an observation about the current Republican Party and the McCain campaign that is spot-on and very important: given the discredited nature of such conservative ideological frameworks as supply-side economics and neocon foreign policy, and in the absence of anything that could be described as “McCainism,” the GOP this year is being driven to a primal, bare-bones appeal to “American identity.”

This year the Republican argument is reduced to its barest essence: Americans versus “pluribus,” unprotected by the politeness of issues or safer symbolism. Hence McCain’s slogan, the politics of the flag pin, the e-mails charging that Obama doesn’t salute the flag, and the attempt to associate him with the anti-American politics of 1968, when he was 7 years old. This, then, may be the ultimate high-stakes gamble for the party of confident risk-takers: Accept that everything else–ideas, competence, governance–is gone, and instead of trying to reconstruct it, as the books recommend, bet everything on the bare essentials of Republican identity politics, “The American President Americans Are Waiting For.”

Mark doesn’t come out and say it, but he’s explained why the McCain campaign is almost certain to be one of the most negative and nasty in living memory, despite McCain’s alleged “centrism.” Theoretically, an “American identity” campaign could be unifying, uplifting, and communitarian in tone. But that’s Barack Obama’s theme, not John McCain’s. And in the current political climate, and for a candidate of the Right, an “American identity” appeal is bound to be exclusive, fearful and even vengeful. McCain really has no other option.
Think about it. McCain’s war record, “character,” and occasional exercises in “independence” might be enough to get him over the hump in an election year where Americans really wanted a Republican president, though perhaps one not named “Bush.” But that’s obviously not how 2008 is shaping up. McCain isn’t going to win the presidency with his foreign policy views. Given how terribly out of alignment he is with public opinion on Iraq, the amazing thing is that he’s doing as well as he is in assessments of him as a commander-in-chief; the numbers are unlikely to improve the more voters get to know McCain’s essentially neocon position on foreign policy.
On domestic issues, McCain at best offers a slightly sanitized version of Bush-era conservatism: he doesn’t like pork-barrel spending and torture; isn’t a global-warming denier; and doesn’t strike anyone as the kind of man who will wake up every morning in the White House scheming to criminalize abortion or demonize gays and lesbians. That’s not a lot of “change.” As for McCain’s reputation for bipartisanship, there’s not much left there these days beyond the echo chamber he shares with Democratic apostate Joe Lieberman.
So like it or not, John McCain is going to be relentlessly driven in the direction of a negative effort to make the contest about his Democratic opponent rather than his own or his party’s merits, and in Barack Obama, he’s got an opponent tailor-made for a gutter campaign aimed at convincing swing voters that he simply represents too much change, and too much risk, in the very visceral sense of embodying so many unfamiliar things.
There’s a pretty clear historical precedent for the strategy that McCain is likely to pursue: Jimmy Carter’s 1980 campaign. Carter faced a political landscape just as forbidding as McCain’s today: a weak economy, plunging U.S. strength and prestige around the world, an exceptionally sour public mood, and a restless and uninspired party “base.” Unsurprisingly, Carter staked his re-election on an effort to make the contest a referendum on all the doubts and fears raised by Ronald Reagan. His Convention Acceptance speech was built on the theme of “The Two Futures,” a forthright appeal to voters to forget about the previous four years and focus on the scary prospects of a Reagan presidency. That was also Carter’s approach in the one 1980 presidential debate, in which his “two futures” argument was decisively trumped by Reagan’s simple “are you better off?” formulation of the case for change.
Perhaps John McCain is in a better position than the 1980 incumbent Carter to offer a minimum case that he represents some degree of “change,” but the odds are that his candidacy will depend on doing a better job than Carter at frightening voters about his opponent. So buckle in for a tough, unsavory GOP campaign, sports fans. When you’re wrong on the issues, your party and ideology have been discredited, and the whole sweep of history seems to conspire against you, dragging the campaign deep into the mud may be the only option left.

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