Right now John McCain is doing better than he and the Republicans deserve. He’s essentially even with Barack Obama in the polls, despite belonging to the same party as one of the most unpopular presidents in American history and leading a dispirited and somewhat divided GOP. And he’s no spring chicken, so he’s facing an uphill battle leading a race based on “change.”
To win in November, he will have to run one of the best campaigns in modern history. How can he do it? In the immortal words of former California governor Jerry Brown, by running “left and right at the same time.”
1) Running Left
If McCain runs as a traditional conservative — just repeating a mantra of no new taxes, support for the conservative social agenda, and a continued presence in Iraq — he’s toast. Instead, as political analyst Dick Morris has suggested, he needs to run counter to some Republican principles and become a rampaging populist on certain issues — attacking outrageous executive pay, corporate greed, and high credit-card fees, for instance.
The way for McCain to dramatize his empathy for the “average American” is to ditch his coat and tie and get back on the “Straight Talk Express” bus, making a number of daily stops at small rallies and town-hall meetings. McCain is at his best when he’s in his leather jacket, surrounded by like-minded folks, as he was in New Hampshire. Campaigning by bus — the mode of transportation for the powerless — and hitting the small towns is an enormously powerful symbol, especially in contrast with what is sure to be the Democrats’ more corporate, big-scale approach.
2) Running Right
How does McCain run right at the same time? By taking positions on the various initiative campaigns that will get hot in the fall. California is sure to have a measure on its ballot attempting to overturn the recent state supreme court’s decision that legalized gay marriage. McCain should endorse that initiative and challenge Obama to do the same. Initiatives banning affirmative action are also scheduled to be on the ballot in five states, including the key swing states of Colorado and Missouri. Again, McCain should express his support and ask Obama where he stands.
Finally, on immigration, McCain has to walk a tightrope between isolating Obama and alienating millions of Hispanic voters who might vote for him. He should study closely state ballot initiatives denying public funding for illegal immigrants, to see if he can back them. And he can always return to the debate question that first derailed the Hillary Clinton candidacy by stressing his opposition to driver’s licenses for illegal immigrants — a position Obama doesn’t share.
3) Attacking Congress
Obama is going to spend the whole campaign trying to tie McCain to George W. Bush. Fair enough, but there is an institution with even less favorable public-opinion numbers than the president: the Democratic Congress. Taking a page from Harry S. Truman’s uphill 1948 campaign, McCain should spend the next six months running against Congress and warning that, if the Democrats control both branches of government come January, the country is in for the kind of change it may not want to endorse.