Yesterday, I laid out the very favorable environment for any Democrat running for President this year. I noted that the current Obama lead of 4-5% is very modest, given the structural advantages any Democrat would have in this year's race.
But there is another way to look at the race: namely that absent some of the unique structural or environmental advantages that exist for Democrats this year, John McCain should be running away from Barack Obama.
While this may sound irrational to some, I believe the key to a McCain victory is to focus his campaign and the voting public on the two candidates themselves -- their life stories, their experiences and accomplishments, their visions for the country, and their characters. If the election is decided on these factors, McCain should win.
The Obama campaign has a simple message: you hate (or really, really don't like) the job George Bush is doing. John McCain will run things just like George Bush, and I (Obama) offer a very different and exciting change in approach. The corollaries to the Obama message are a not very subtle pitch that the voter can demonstrate his or her decency and lack of bias by voting for the first African American presidential candidate, and by the way, John McCain is too old.
McCain needs to make the case that he is a far "safer" choice to be the next occupant in the White House. This case should be not that difficult to make. In essence, who is the "untested" candidate, and who is the "riskier" choice? These are specific words, as Frank Luntz might say, that matter.
Secondarily, there are particular choices for the Vice Presidential pick who could add some energy and excitement to the McCain campaign. The Obama-McCain contest has not been a fair fight in the charisma derby. Barack Obama is very good at reading a prepared speech from a teleprompter (John McCain is really bad at this), and Obama has been wowing the media and live audiences reading prepared texts. He has frequently stumbled with off the cuff remarks, which is why his campaign pays such attention to details regarding the setting for events, and on prepared remarks.
While it is likely that McCain will be outspent, and out organized, he should have enough money to get a message across, if it is focused and he stays on script. By accepting federal campaign funding, McCain will also not have to fundraise during the fall campaign, while Obama will likely waste days if not weeks doing this. It is also the case that fund raising events tend to be very partisan, requiring a candidate to pander to activists. In a general election campaign, when a candidate is trying to move to the center to appear moderate and acceptable to more than the party's base voters (an approach Obama has clearly undertaken of late), a shriller pitch to the base can lead to problems, as it did for Obama in San Francisco a few months back.
The Case against Obama
So what is the case for McCain? To begin with in a two party system, a case against Obama. No candidate for President since Wendell Wilkie in 1940 has had as little relevant experience before running for President as Barack Obama. The Illinois Senator served for 8 years, in a generally undistinguished fashion, in the Illinois legislature. He was best known for voting present more often than any other State Senator. When the Democrats took over the Legislature the last two years he served, Obama worked out a deal with the Democratic leader, Emil Jones, to get his name on some bills so he could buff up his resume before running for the open US Senate seat.
After a string of revelations about two opponents' marital problems, Obama wound up effectively running unopposed for the US Senate seat (Alan Keyes was the GOP standard-bearer). In the US Senate, Obama missed many votes in his first term even before he launched his Presidential bid, as he traveled the country speaking to Democratic Party events (and positioning himself with activists for a future Presidential run). Since the campaign began, he has missed virtually all Senate votes and failed to hold meetings of his own subcommittee. So the Obama record is very thin.
His major campaign themes have been lofty messages of change and hope and bipartisan unity. This is a smart course to take, when you have little to show for your years in public office. McCain needs to focus on Obama's record of scant legislative accomplishment and inexperience. What has Barack Obama done, as opposed to claiming to have done? Obama has argued in the Democratic nominating contest that he showed good judgment by opposing the Iraq War in 2002 while John Edwards and Hillary Clinton voted to authorize the President's use of force, if necessary. But when he was elected to the Senate, Obama admitted that had he been in the Senate in 2002, and exposed to the same intelligence briefings as his two rivals, he might have voted the same way as they did, and as most Democrats in the Senate did -- to support the war resolution. So did Obama show good judgment in 2002, or was he just on the outside looking in, finding a smart way to appeal to anti-war activists in his party for an upcoming Senate campaign?
The real judgment issue comes into play with regard to Obama's call for a quick withdrawal from Iraq, and his opposition to the surge in the spring and summer of 2007. John McCain risked his political future calling for more troops for an unpopular war and said he would rather win the war than the White House. Obama stuck to his left wing anti-war mantra, and has been proven to have been wrong. Obama thought the surge would fail, but it has succeeded beyond anyone's expectations.
When General Petraeus showed up to testify to Congress last September, the group MoveOn.org in one of its vilest displays (and there are many to choose from), called Petraeus a betrayer of America in a full page ad the New York Times willingly ran. Obama, competing for the group's endorsement and contributions, said nothing. He missed the vote in the Senate, when by a 3 to 1 margin, that body condemned the ad. And now Obama wants to be the Commander in Chief and have the respect of the men fighting under Petraeus. Potential McCain ads about this episode, and the debate about the wisdom of the surge, scream off the page.
As opposed to the appearance of limitless ambition of the Democratic nominee, the GOP has a candidate who performed one of the most remarkable acts of personal courage ever displayed in the military -- consigning himself to years of torture and abuse, so as to not to break the morale of his fellow prisoners of war by accepting an early release. A new McCain ad does a pretty good job presenting McCain's decision as part of a long pattern of acts of love and devotion to his country. Generation after generation, the McCains have served in the military. Duty, honor, country are not just words for John McCain. What does Barack Obama offer to measure up? A couple of years as a community organizer? The McCain camp will almost certainly not run an ad juxtaposing Reverend Wright, Bill Ayers, and Michael Pfleger and some of their juicier comments about Åmerica with the McCain record of service to his country, but maybe some group or the RNC will.
The history of the "Chicago friends of Barack Obama" is an uncomfortable one for the Illinois Senator, but it is a commentary on Obama's judgment as to the kind of people he chose as friends, mentors, and even spiritual advisors. Palestinian radicals opposed to the existence of Israel were good friends of Barack Obama. So was Tony Rezko, and the aforementioned Wright, Ayers and Pfleger.
Since entering the Senate, Barack Obama has compiled, in his limited number of votes, the most left wing record of all 100 US Senators. There is reason for Obama to be pivoting right while there is still time to change the script. John McCain on the other hand, has one of the most independent voting records in the Senate. Obama is far closer to Bernie Sanders, the socialist Senator from Vermont, than John McCain is to George Bush. But a hundred million dollars worth of negative ads will have George Bush morphing into John McCain so as to keep the focus on Bush and his unpopularity.
Obama believes in wealth and income redistribution, regardless of its effects on the size of the total economic pie. Most Americans do not. This is not pragmatic, but dogmatic, and certainly not moderate. If Obama wins and the Democrats have much larger majorities in the Senate and the House after 2008 (as they will), the country‘s politics will move sharply left. If America is still a slightly center-right nation (though clearly it is less so than in 2004) and basically moderate in its disposition, a vote for McCain would be a way to check such a sharp swing to the left. McCain would be smart to talk about this, and the need to serve as a check on what would be a heavy tax and spend Democratic controlled Congress. The message for McCain needs to be as simple as the one Obama is selling. John McCain offers a a lifetime of love and service to country, an independent (maverick) streak that enables him to compromise and get results, and a strong leader in a time of continuing serious threats and challenges to our national security. This needs to be contrasted to the substantively empty record of Barack Obama -- a thin, but doctrinaire down the line left wing voting record when he shows up to vote . Obama is a candidate committed to taxing his way out of the current economic hard times. He is a candidate with no national security experience who might well convey weakness to our enemies, and thereby serve to invite them to act more provocatively. And Obama is a candidate with a history of long term relationships with people who seem to think very badly of their country.
Finally, there is the energy issue, which is now playing into the hands of the Republicans, if properly handled. Obama and the Democrats say no - to more drilling, and to increased use of nuclear power, and are offering no solutions to the increase in energy costs, which are proving to be a significant and damaging new burden for most American families. The Obama approach: to tax more of oil company profits and to end energy futures speculation, will not change the growing supply demand imbalance, which is a primary reason for rising energy costs. McCain is supporting more drilling, and more nuclear power, and greater conservation. So McCain is for more supply, and reduced demand. Obama and his Party appear to be looking for villains, not solutions.
Energy needed in the campaign
Even if McCain gets the messaging right, it may not be enough unless the candidate can inject some energy into the campaign. More than most Presidential candidates, McCain needs to get a boost from his Vice Presidential selection. There are concerns about McCain's age, and many expect he will only serve one term if elected. In the end McCain may make the decision to commit to only one term and to announce that he will use that term to achieve specific goals: to exit from Iraq with honor and success, to get the economy moving again, and to push the country on the road to energy independence. In any case, voters will look to McCain's VP choice as a more serious one than would be the case for a younger nominee.
The McCain camp can get some momentum in the two summer months before the convention by not only announcing a VP choice, but also some Cabinet choices. An early VP selection would mean that the media would be covering two GOP candidates and Obama for a period of time, a 2 to 1 advantage for the McCain team. That would be the reverse of what happened in the last few months of the Democratic nominating contest. But also announcing some Cabinet picks would magnify the roles and attention to these spokespeople during the campaign.
Several possible Cabinet picks could be very helpful to McCain. Carly Fiorina or Meg Whitman may not be ideal VP candidates, but would be solid choices to be part of a McCain administration. These are women who have had pivotal roles in the new digital economy, and would deliver a positive message to younger voters, the high tech community, and women upset by what happened to Hillary Clinton in the nominating fight. Joe Lieberman and Tom Ridge are very capable men who could serve in an Administration at senior levels in foreign policy or defense roles. Bobby Jindal could be the head of HHS, with a directive to undertake a serious examination of the options for reform of entitlement programs, to ensure that the county does not go broke from Medicare, Medicaid and Social Security in the coming decades. None of the three are likely VP picks at this point. But they would help the ticket if their future roles were known.
So who would help the ticket most as a VP selection? One interesting choice would be Alaska's very popular Governor, Sarah Palin. She would be an immediate media sensation and rob the Obama campaign of its monopoly of saturation media infatuation. Given the way the media was perceived to have ganged up on Hillary Clinton, there might be much greater care about avoiding doing it again with Palin. Of course Palin would be challenged for her youth and inexperience in foreign policy matters. But the reality is that Palin, unlike almost all US Senators (including Barack Obama), has actually run something, and with 84% approval for her job as Governor, seems to be running it well. Jimmy Carter, Michael Dukakis and Bill Clinton all ran for President directly from service as Governor. Raising the experience issue with Palin would be a risky strategy for the Obama campaign. After all, Palin would only be running for the #2 spot, and Obama, with arguably less of a track record, is running for the top spot. Palin would also be very effective in helping focus the energy issue, and the need to explore and drill for what we have in this country. She could take McCain to ANWR and give him reason to shift on that issue.
Other selections who could help the ticket include Virginia Congressman Eric Cantor, South Dakota Senator John Thune, and Mitt Romney. Minnesota Governor Tim Pawlenty gets lots of mention, but Minnesota is likely not in play even with Pawlenty on the ticket, and he seems like a weaker choice then the other four. Romney proved he is Presidential calibre during the primaries, and would help the ticket in Michigan, which McCain may have to win, and New Hampshire, where McCain has a decent chance to win. Thune adds no state, but is a hero to the GOP base for knocking off Tom Daschle, is a respected leader in the Party, and might energize the volunteers needed for a large get out the vote operation, which was essential to Bush's victory in 2004, particularly in Ohio. Cantor would be a good pick as well. He is a very articulate conservative spokesperson, and would help McCain in Virginia, a state that will be closely contested this year. He is Jewish and would aid McCain's promising effort to significantly increase the GOP's share of the Jewish vote this year. He is also a good fundraiser. Finally, there is Rob Portman, the very capable Budget Director, and former Cincinnati area Congressman. Portman would help the ticket in Ohio, a tossup state and add real economic experience to the ticket. But his ties to the Bush administration may provide too much fodder for the Obama team to risk his selection .
It is worth mentioning that several of the most promising potential VP picks for Barack Obama have pulled themselves out of contention. This list includes Virginia Senator Jim Webb, former Virginia Governor Mark Warner and Ohio Governor Ted Strickland. These three men were arguably the three best VP picks for Obama. All of the top picks for McCain are still in the running. On this front, it is advantage McCain, if he takes advantage.
Richard Baehr is chief political correspondent of American Thinker.