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.
This line of attack should come naturally to McCain, who has spent much of his political life attacking congressional perks and “earmarks.” And it’s a line of reasoning that should resonate with voters the closer they get to November. After all, is McCain more like Bush or is Obama more like the other Democrats in Congress? The answer to that question favors the GOP.
4) Picking a Veep
The importance of vice-presidential nominees tends to be overrated. But in McCain’s case it will have a huge symbolic value since it will be the major action he takes between now and November to give the voters a sense of how he will govern. If he picks a traditional Republican or anyone associated with the Bush administration, voters will assume he’s traditional and a Bushie, too. And he will likely lose.
In truth, he shouldn’t pick any of the commonly mentioned governors (Louisiana’s Bobby Jindal, Florida’s Charlie Crist, Minnesota’s Tim Pawlenty, etc.) because it will be hard to argue that Obama is too inexperienced if McCain has picked a running mate even more so. And all of McCain’s primary opponents are either too flawed or too conservative to help the presumptive Republican nominee pick up a state he wouldn’t otherwise carry. (Fred Thompson might have been an interesting choice before he turned out to be, well, Fred Thompson.)
That leaves McCain two paths to energize his candidacy. He can either choose an “outsider” woman or a Democrat/Independent as a way to demonstrate his independence. The problem in each case is finding one who would help the ticket but who is also pro-life. Republicans Carly Fiorina (best known for her leadership of Hewlett Packard) and Meg Whitman (former CEO of eBay) might fit the bill and would be intriguing candidates. But it would be a risk to pick a running mate with no governmental experience. There are a handful of Democrats who are pro-life — such as Colorado governor Bill Ritter, Nebraska Senator Ben Nelson, and former Indiana Congressman Tim Roemer — but would any consider an offer across the aisle from McCain? Unlikely.