What McCain needs to do (I)
John McCain clearly faces an uphill battle on the road to the White House, given the myriad problems with the American economy right now and the factionalized, demoralized state of his party. Nevertheless, the election is still eminently winnable, as long as he rectifies his vulnerabilities in a timely manner and exploits the vulnerabilities of Obama in an astute (not heavy-handed) way. McCain is in an awkward situation as the standard-bearer for a party whose current leader has been tarnished by lackluster governance. The irony that he ran against Bush in the 2000 primaries and now must pay for Bush's "sins" must be painful for him to bear. Fortunately, he is in a position to take full advantage of his own inherent qualities in a way that partly neutralizes the "penalty" of belonging to the incumbent party. That leads us to the first and most important task for his campaign to be successful:
Emphasize his credentials as a serious, experienced leader capable of tackling problems in a practical way. That means he must avoid pandering to voters (as he has been prone to do on occasion in the past), or sugar-coating the tough measures that the next president will have to make. True, such a candid approach to campaigning risks alienating some voters -- the kind who don't pay much attention to policy issues anyway, and just want the government to make their lives easier. McCain should concede that portion of the electorate to Obama, and hope that enough skeptical, attentive voters appreciate his courage and forthrightfulness. If he is not willing to take that kind of risk, it will be very hard to regain the momentum, and he probably won't win.
In Sunday's Washington Post George Will made just such a suggestion for McCain, noting wryly that the Arizona senator has a tendency to offer up a smorgasbord of nice-sounding policy proposals in an off-handed way. Accordingly, Will says, McCain must break that habit and reinvent himself as a thoughtful, deliberate chief executive:
To begin the recasting, he should weed from the unkempt garden of his political thinking the populism that often seems like mere attitudinizing redeemed by insincerity.
That really hits the nail on the head, doesn't it? I couldn't have phrased it any better myself. The point is that McCain must sharply distinguish himself from Obama, and that means refraining at all costs from pandering to populist impulses. If he tries to out-pander Obama (for example, by promising lower gasoline prices), he might as well give up right now. Will goes on to say that McCain should tell voters that he would keep the Democratic Congress in check, since it is all but certain that the Democrats will gain an even larger majority in both houses come November. Raising the specter of a runaway liberal government making all kinds of mischief (nationalized health care, shutting down conservative talk radio via the "Fairness Doctrine") is a good idea, as long as the point is not oversold.
Finally, Will says McCain needs to hammer Obama on specifics of foreign policy, asking what he would do about Iranian missiles, Russian aggression, or trade policy. Those are areas in which Obama is notoriously weak, and most people know it. Again, however, McCain must adopt a mature, dignified tone in making these criticisms of Obama, not getting nasty or oversimplifying the issues. Ultimately, it will come down to stylistic presentation. McCain is no Reagan in that regard, and he likewise falls behind Obama as a communicator, but fortunately, he ranks well ahead of Bush.
I certainly don't pretend to be a political pundit or prescient prognosticator, but I'll venture the following bold forecast: If McCain is holding his own in the polls by early October, within a few percentage points of Obama, he will win the election. Obama's campaign is based entirely on emotion and imagery, and if the bandwagon he started early this year can't maintain forward momentum as the campaign reaches the climax, doubts will start to arise and most swing voters will come to their senses.
For right now, the big question is, Who will McCain pick as his running mate? Should he choose someone who could tip the balance in a swing state (Eric Cantor, Virginia), someone who appeals to a key Republican constituency (Mike Huckabee, evangelical Christians), someone who makes up for what he lacks in terms of policy substance (Mitt Romney, economics), someone who is more youthful (Gov. Tim Pawlenty of Minnesota), or someone who is best suited to serve as president in case the unthinkable happens?
Among the most likely candidates, I would favor Pawlenty. (Imagine the puns they could come with: "Pawlenty of experience," etc.) An ideal vice president for McCain would have strong conservative credentials and appeal to non-traditional GOP constituencies such as women and minorities. Condoleezza Rice is out of the running, but what about Lynne Cheney, wife of the current Vice President? She is very smart, experienced, and is an excellent speaker. Just imagine how much that would annoy the "Impeach Bush and Cheney" crowd! Granted, it is far-fetched, but an unexpected choice like that could be just the ticket McCain needs to shake things up and seize back the momentum from Obama.