Sep 07 2008

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McCain Making it Competitive

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Somewhere between Barack Obama’s world tour to woo European non-voters and his Hawaiian vacation, John McCain probably had a chance to think through the general election campaign and his own next steps to prepare for it.

The summer, in retrospect, has been good to McCain. Despite the financial and organizational strengths of his opponent, McCain caught up and kept the race within the margin or error in most polls; a daunting feat given voter unrest, GOP unpopularity and an uncertain economy.

McCain turned rising energy prices to unexpected Republican advantage with his renewed support for off-shore drilling, while Russia’s invasion of Georgia showcased McCain’s acknowledged strength in foreign policy. Meanwhile, a series humorous ads launched over the summer, successfully mocked Obama’s celebrity and the penchant of his supporters to “deit-ize” his candidacy.

But catching up isn’t winning, and despite all of McCain’s progress, he rarely beat Obama in the polls.  Further, it was clear that Obama campaign strategists intended to glue McCain to the Bush presidency and make the election a referendum on unpopular Bush policies. Such a plan would allow Obama to run on his perceived strength as a change agent and quietly sidestep his key weakness as a candidate, his resume.

For anyone with a sense of political history, it is one of 2008’s great ironies that tying McCain to Bush could be considered a plausible election strategy. Through the bitter 2000 primary battle, and later, with the policy tussles on campaign finance reform, tax cuts, environmental protection, and US military interrogation techniques, McCain has been anything but a foot soldier for the Bush administration.

But to paraphrase a former Defense Secretary, you don’t go into an election with the perceptions you want, but with the perceptions you have. It was abundantly clear from the political terrain that a cautious, safe or conventional Republican campaign was not going to overcome the Democrats during turbulent economic times and GOP unpopularity.

No, to win, McCain would need to do much more by attempting to  achieve potentially conflicting goals; to unify and energize the Republican Party base and, more broadly, to contest the Obama narrative for change with one of McCain’s own. This meant at least implicitly, running against his own Party and the Washington Establishment, setting McCain apart as the only proven change agent with a record of responsible reform.

Obama unexpectedly made McCain’s task easier with his selection of Joe Biden as a running mate. While the Biden selection offered protection to Obama’s vulnerable foreign policy flank, it all but shackled the Obama candidacy to a 35 year veteran of the Washington Establishment. Despite the best efforts of the Obama campaign, the selection muddied the hallmark “change” message.

With Biden, McCain faced a ticket topped by an untested Senator, paired with a running mate whose resume would otherwise be Exhibit A in what the Democratic nominee was running against. And to add insult to injury, not a lick of executive experience between them.  It provided an opening to Republicans.

Step One in the McCain response was the selection of Governor Sarah Palin as his running mate. Almost all of the commentary on the selection, from savvy to lewd, has missed a central point.

In picking Palin, McCain accomplished two crucial goals. First, Palin reassures and dramatically energizes the Party’s conservative base. But second, and more importantly, in Palin, McCain has found a partner with executive experience, from outside Washington, with a McCain-like record of taking on entrenched interests on behalf of the taxpayer.

While pundits and commentators have focused on Palin’s gender and how it weighed in on McCain’s choice in light of the Hillary-snubbing, people overlooked how much Palin represents a younger version of McCain by attitude and action. In this light, with age difference aside, the Palin pick is eerily similar to Bill Clinton’s choice of Al Gore in 1992, where common purpose and outlook were complimented by distinct political experience, all mutually reinforcing.

Step Two was McCain’s address to the convention.

The speech clearly stated McCain’s mainstream conservative bone fides on taxes, spending, regulation, defense, judges and life. All positions that appear more credible to Party stalwarts with Palin on the ticket.

The speech then accomplished the critical objective of tying McCain’s remarkable biography, replete with examples of honor and integrity, to his reputation as a maverick who has repeatedly put country before Party. Having established his genuine authenticity as a change agent, McCain pivoted and delivered the most populist lines by a Republican nominee in recent memory.

In the process, he effectively distanced himself from the Bush administration, established himself as a different kind of Republican and committed the Party he now leads to fight the entrenched interests in Washington, some of whom were sitting in the audience. It was an impressive balancing act from someone not normally associated with sophisticated rhetoric.  It was a very careful threading of the needle.

The result has been that in the space of a week, McCain has completely changed the dynamic of the presidential race.

Instead of defending a Party that has suffered from public perceptions of indifference at home and unilateralism abroad, McCain has chosen to recast and lead a Party committed to aggressive reform by the example of a ticket with experience, proven bipartisanship and a track record of results.

Instead of ceding the change argument to Obama, McCain has doubled down on it, challenging the American people to decide which ticket has the best experience to bring real change to the country, something that until now was Obama’s greatest perceived strength.

In the process, McCain has energized Republicans and challenged Obama’s hold on generational change through his selection of a grounded, capable an appealing running mate, who by personal and professional experience could not be more different from Obama, but who is no less compelling.

In an election year that has had no shortage of surprises, we find ourselves entering a general election campaign where the Party in power has cast an insurgent as nominee, and the most dynamic change has come from the oldest candidate.

Fasten your safety belts. It’s going to be a hell of a ride.

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