On the GOP side, John McCain argued fairly convincingly, in 2000, that he was independent enough to be above politics — a kind of updated Ross Perot. But will that idea work in 2008, given that the country has grown more partisan, and, more important, the candidate now seems less independent? McCain may need a second act. Rudy Giuliani is still a national hero almost six years after 9/11 — a considerable feat — and it’s likely that he’ll run his campaign on a kind of traditional reformist “he’ll do for America what he did for New York.” (That theme, however, isn’t all that different from Mike Dukakis’s “Massachusetts miracle,” urged on voters in 1988 — and we know how that ended.)
The other GOP candidates have their work cut out for them. Mitt Romney, in particular, is going to have to learn that positioning oneself as the “right-wing” candidate hardly offers voters a compelling vision of the direction in which you will lead the country, especially if your new posture is not particularly consistent with your prior persona.
The two leading non-candidates — Newt Gingrich and Al Gore — are both thought to offer big ideas, but trouble clouds both lofty realms. Gingrich has ideas — he’s a veritable idea machine! But that isn’t the same as having one compelling theme. He’s reminiscent of the trial lawyer who got up in oral argument and said, “Your Honor, I’d like to make ten points,” and the judge answered, “Just give me your best one.”
Gore certainly has the biggest idea out there — global warming — and most likely the most important one, too. But, given that it can be so easily co-opted, is it a presidential idea? Barack Obama could call a press conference tomorrow and announce, “I commend Al Gore for everything he’s done on global warming and promise that in an Obama administration, he would be my climate adviser with my full backing to do whatever is necessary to solve this problem.” That isn’t to say that Gore can’t come up with a big idea. But it will likely have to be something more capacious than global warming — something that taps in to his years in the “wilderness” and how it has given him fresh insight into how to lead America.
BEST IDEA CAMPAIGNS SO FAR: Clinton and Obama, followed by Edwards and Guiliani
NEXT WEEK: Rules 2 and 3: It helps to have run before and it helps not to come from Washington.