John McCain’s Challenge

by Randy Shaw on September 8, 2008

To win the election, John McCain must distance himself from President Bush and the Republican Party. Can he succeed? Based on comments from nervous Obama supporters over the weekend, one would think that the nation’s electorate has forgotten the past eight years and is immune from learning that McCain voted with Bush 90% of the time. Post-convention bounce notwithstanding, McCain’s effort to represent “change” while having backed Bush’s foreign and economic policies, and his attempt to propose a new course while his Party’s base is happy with the status quo, makes his candidacy an uphill battle.

But McCain’s challenge is not unprecedented. In 1988, Vice-President George H. W. Bush gave a highly praised acceptance speech in which he vowed to usher in a “kindler, gentler nation,” a not so subtle criticism of the Reagan years. Bush essentially argued that he had acted the good soldier by standing by President Reagan despite differences on issues, and used his convention speech to tout his own biography as an honored World War II fighter pilot. Despite the nation’s troubled economy, and the Iran-Contra, HUD, Savings & Loan and other scandals that had created an aura of corruption around Republicans, Bush easily defeated Democrat Michael Dukakis in that November’s election. Can McCain follow the elder Bush in overcoming seemingly insurmountable electoral challenges, or are the current times much worse and the Democratic nominee too strong for history to be repeated?

I was struck by one aspect of John McCain’s acceptance speech that seems to have been lost in the post-convention analysis. For all the criticism of his lack of specific plans for the future, McCain also avoided describing his specific accomplishments of the past.

Why a “Maverick”?

Viewers seeking to learn about John McCain would have no idea what McCain did to become perceived as a “maverick.” They would not know why he was once regularly praised in Gary Trudeau’s liberal comic strip, Doonesbury, nor why he was such a frequent guest on Jon Stewart’s The Daily Show.

If McCain’s speech were really designed to woo independents, and to show he could cross party lines, why not specify his alliance with Russ Feingold to achieve campaign finance reform, his work with Ted Kennedy on comprehensive immigration reform, and his long record of support for environmental protection?

Or he could have mentioned the chief reason he earned status as a “maverick”—his willingness to publicly challenge the Reverend Pat Robertson and other leaders of the Christian Right.

We know why McCain avoided discussing his political past. Reminding Republican delegates of his backing of legalization for undocumented immigrants would have caused massive booing. And alluding to his prior attacks on right-wing religious leaders would have prompted delegates to rush for the exits.

This is the problem John McCain faces in 2008 that George H. W. Bush did not confront in 1988. Bush was free to be himself during the 1988 campaign, and rather than run from his pre-Reagan past, he cited his accomplishments during those years to convince voters that he offered a different agenda from the President.

Recall that it was George H. W. Bush who during the 1980 primaries first termed Reagan’s “supply side” policy as “voodoo economics.” While he was forced to use his 1988 convention speech to announce, “Read my lips. No new taxes,” he was not forced to run from his prior record as John McCain is now doing.

George W. Bush v. Ronald Reagan

Contrary to popular mythology, Ronald Reagan was not among the nation’s most beloved presidents. In fact, Bill Clinton’s approval ratings upon leaving office were higher than Reagan’s. But whereas the elder Bush had to overcome a President with declining popularity, McCain has hooked his ambitions to a President with a current approval rating of 29%.

The historic unpopularity of the incumbent Republican President poses quite a challenge for McCain’s attempt to run on a platform of “change.” And whereas Republicans in 1988 understood that the nation needed to chart a new direction, a New York Times/CBS News survey of the Republican Convention delegates found that, despite high gas prices, record deficits and a faltering economy, 79% approved of Bush’s performance.

That puts McCain in a very difficult position. Unlike the elder Bush, he cannot explicitly propose a new course for the nation without dividing his base.

When McCain referred in his speech to Republican complicity with the problems in Washington, DC, the crowd stayed quiet. If the candidate was testing whether he could blame Republicans in Washington without alienating the party’s base—which was sitting in the Excel Center—he got his answer.

This forces McCain to speak in platitudes about “change” and “fighting for what’s right” while ignoring specifics. When he is forced to provide specifics in the weeks ahead, he will respond as he has this entire campaign season: by aligning himself with the Bush Administration.

Lacking the flexibility George H. W. Bush had in 1988 to chart his own course, and with the Obama campaign pounding McCain as “more of the same” and for voting with Bush 90% of the time, the Republican’s efforts to become the “change” candidate are likely to fail.

Barack Obama v. Michael Dukakis

Democrats are obsessed with the notion that their Party has a history of snatching defeat out of the jaws of victory in presidential campaigns. But the only time this has occurred in recent years (excluding the stolen 2000 election) was in 1988, when Michael Dukakis’ refusal to counteract Bush’s negative campaign ads gave the Republicans an undeserved victory.

Barack Obama has shown throughout the primary season that he will not hesitate to both respond to attacks and to go negative. Nor would he be foolish enough to tell the American people in a national presidential debate that the contest between him and McCain is, as Dukakis said about Bush, “about competence, not ideology.”

In fact, over the weekend Obama directly confronted McCain’s consistent support for Bush policies, saying that the candidate must believe voters are “stupid” for thinking that they can sell McCain as a change agent. Senator Barbara Boxer jumped on the vagueness of McCain’s vow to “fight” for people, saying that he had fought against equal pay, against the minimum wage, and against most proposals favorable to working people.

John McCain not only faces greater obstacles than Bush the elder in effectively seeking a third term in the face of an unpopular status quo, but he faces a much tougher opponent. At the Convention, McCain-Palin could avoid taking ownership of the problems caused by Republican rule the past eight years; this will steadily change as the campaign unfolds.

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