Imagine the election this fall as a gigantic Democratic primary in which
independents and Republicans can cross over. I suspect this is how John McCain is
looking at it.
Sen. McCain is running for president de facto as an independent. This gives
conservatives heartburn, but considering the parlous state of the Republican brand
these days, it's probably wise.
The three biggest obstacles between Sen. McCain and the White House are:
(1) President Bush. He's the most unpopular president in the history of polling, a
drag on GOP candidates everywhere.
(2) The Republican label. In a poll taken for NBC and the Wall Street Journal in
March, voters preferred a generic Democrat over a generic Republican by 13
(3) His age. Sen. McCain will be 72 in August. If elected, he'd be the oldest
first term president in history (Ronald Reagan was 69).
The more swing voters view Sen. McCain as independent, the more likely they are to
choose between him and Sen. Obama on the basis of the major differences between
them on issues, or on their characters, or on their experience, all of which work
to Sen. McCain's advantage.
And by stressing his independence, Sen. McCain undermines one of Sen. Obama's
campaign themes. Sen. Obama has presented himself as a reformer who would reach
across party lines. But he's never actually done it. Sen. McCain has. In a
"where's the beef?" contest, Sen. Obama is tofu.
The downside is that conservatives unhappy with Sen. McCain will grow more
disenchanted. He could lose on the right as many votes as he gains in the center.
To walk this tightrope successfully will require a diplomacy Sen. McCain has yet to
exhibit, and a wisdom and maturity conservatives have yet to display.
Sen. McCain needs to recognize that he cannot win the election without the support
of conservatives, so he ought not gratuitously to insult them.
Conservatives need to recognize Sen. McCain is greatly preferable to Sen. Obama on
most of the issues dear to our hearts, and worse on none of them.
Conservatives also should understand that to win in the poisonous atmosphere this
year, Sen. McCain needs the votes of many people who are not fond of Republicans.
We must give him a little latitude in seeking them.
Since I think man-made global warming is a hoax, I'm not pleased that Sen. McCain
has embraced it. But according to a focus group conducted by HCD Research and the
Muhlenberg College Institute of Public Opinion, the ad that Sen. McCain made to
explain his position has a profound effect on Democrats. Before being shown the ad,
47 percent of Democrats thought Barack Obama had the best plan on global warming.
After viewing the ad, only 37 percent thought so.
Sen. McCain's "cap and trade" plan would be unnecessarily burdensome to our economy.
But it would be less harmful than what Sen. Obama plans to do. And if it's what it
takes to win the war on terror, keep activist judges from subverting democracy, and
prevent a massive income tax hike, it's a price I'm willing to pay.
Running as an independent doesn't help Sen. McCain with his age, but what he can do
about his age problem can reinforce his independent credentials.
There are down sides to stating explicitly he intends only to serve a single term.
But Sen. McCain should make this strongly implicit.
Imagine you're a Hillary Clinton supporter (or Hillary herself). You'd still like
to see Hillary in the White House. You know that isn't going to happen this year,
and that it isn't going to happen in 2016. Hillary's only chance to win is in 2012,
and that's only if Sen. Obama loses this year. If Sen. McCain signals he only plans
to serve one term, that could be a reason for Hillary supporters to stay home, or to
cross over, on election day.
Sen. McCain could burnish his independent credentials by selecting Sen. Joe
Lieberman as his running mate.
If he were to select either former Massachussetts Gov. Mitt Romney or former
Arkansas Gov. Mike Huckabee, he'd annoy supporters of the other, because they see
each others as rivals should Sen. McCain lose this year, or choose not to seek
re-election, and they don't want their rival to have the leg up the vice
presidential nomination would provide.
Sen. Lieberman poses no such problem, because as a Democrat, he knows the GOP
wouldn't ever nominate him for president. The field would be clear for both parties
in 2012. Making that clear could provide Sen. McCain the boost he needs to be
elected president in 2008.