Over at The Corner, Ramesh Ponnuru linked to my post yesterday predicting that the McCain campaign would inevitably head to the gutter in an effort to frighten voters about Barack Obama. Ramesh responded:
I will make a prediction of my own: The Democrats are almost certain to treat any campaign that threatens to deprive Obama of the presidency as negative and nasty.
I suspect where he’s going with this is the rejoinder that “comparative” campaigning is entirely legitimate, and that complaints about “negative” campaigning are sometimes efforts to avoid public scrutiny of one’s record or “character.”
Fair enough. But as my post discussed at some length, there are specific reasons that the attack on Obama won’t be some sort of high-minded analytical examination of his voting record or policy platform–or even of his “experience”–but will instead focus on “character” issues that represent little more than an effort to raise invidious fears about Obama’s “otherness.”
I got into this analysis as a meditation on Mark Schmitt’s argument that the only real message left to Republicans this year is an “American identity” appeal that battens on public fears of the unfamiliar. But let me come at this from another angle.
McCain is a candidate with a lot of built-in handicaps in terms of the partisan fundamentals, the mood of the country, and the issues landscape. He also suffers from a palpably unenthusiastic party base, and will be the first Republican presidential candidate in eons to struggle with a financial disadvantage. Against these handicaps, he has to capture the electoral “center” while shoring up his base. And he’s facing a Democratic nominee with his own appeal to the “center,” as measured by tangible support in the primaries and the polls from independents and even some disgruntled Republicans.
There are two ways to “capture the center” in electoral politics. One way is to occupy it with popular and transpartisan policy positions that create the impression that the candidate is bigger than his or her party, and is in alignment with the public’s needs and aspirations. (That, of course, runs the risk of discouraging the party base.) The other way is to push your opponent out of “the center” with attacks on him or her as “extremist,” which has the added benefit of helping to fire up your own base.
It is theoretically possible to campaign both ways. That, in fact, was what Richard Nixon did in 1972, through a series of strategic moves that appealed to various Dem-leaning voter and interest groups, while savaging McGovern as a pacifistic nimrod surrounded by drug legalizers, abortion supporters and welfare rights advocates. Bill Clinton arguably pulled off a milder version of the take-the-center, push-the-other-guy-out strategy in 1996.
Can John McCain really occupy the political center in the course of a long general election campaign? It’s doubtful. His “centrist” reputation is largely the product of a brief moment in his career–his 2000 nomination campaign–and the friends (in the news media) and enemies (in the conservative movement) that moment earned him. He’s spent much of this electoral cycle so far erasing all the positions that once made him look like a “maverick,” engaging in conspicuous love-ins with the high poohbahs of conservative economic and cultural orthodoxy. And it’s very likely that McCain’s long honeymoon with the news media is coming to an end, in part because of clever and systematic Democratic efforts to upbraid the media for the “free ride” they’ve given the Arizonan, and in part because this year’s Democratic nominee, unlike the last two, is not a man the media instinctively dislike (au contraire)
Moreover, McCain’s most distinctive policy position going into the general election is his identification with the idea of “victory” in Iraq. That will continue to be a very hard sell.
So given John McCain’s positioning, and a political and financial landscape which will deny him any breaks, it’s simply hard to deny that his best bet will be to try to push Obama out of the center, which is what conservative opinion outlets and operatives are going to do anyway.
It is also theoretically possible that McCain’s attacks on Obama could be substantive, and focused on policy positions and a Senate voting record that Republicans will describe as “liberal, liberal, liberal” in the grand old fashion of the last three decades. But this may well be the first presidential election in the last three decades where voters would actually prefer a “liberal, liberal, liberal” to anyone tainted with the GOP label.
It will be vastly easier for the McCain campaign to talk about the Rev. Wright, and flag pins, and Michelle Obama’s alleged lack of patriotism, and Obama’s “radical friends,” and under the radar screen, about secret Muslims and interracial families.
Maybe McCain would personally prefer to make his campaign an exchange of views on weighty matters of war and peace and prosperity and values and “reform.” I’m sure Ramesh Ponnuru would prefer that, too. But like it or not, the GOP and its candidate are out of step with the country right now on a wide array of issues, and the GOP “brand” is going to be a huge drag on McCain. It would be naive to think that his campaign won’t exploit the “character” loophole in the general rules of issues-based campaigning to make this election not about policies, but about the unknown, and to many voters frightening, prospect of a country led by this unprecedented politician named Barack Obama. And once McCain starts down this road, he won’t be able to come back.