This election cycle is shaped by one indisputable political reality: It is a good year to be a Democrat, a bad one to be a Republican. But this fact does not automatically translate into a good strategy for Barack Obama or a hopeless cause for John McCain.
Obama won his nomination by challenging the most effective partisan in American politics, Hillary Clinton, with a vague but appealing message of unity and hope. Then came Denver, in which Team Obama took the advice (in every detail) of the Democratic establishment it had defeated: Since it is a Democratic year, run as a full-blooded, Bush-baiting, McCain-bashing, class-warfare candidate. Forget about high rhetoric, post-partisanship and the rest of that rubbish. Give us the liberal victory that Al Gore and John Kerry were too inept to deliver.
With his fiery but forgettable speech last week, Obama was consumed by the establishment he had conquered. He chose to lead his party into battle under the white flag of his own tonal surrender.
It may be enough to win. With Republicans trailing by about 10 points in the generic congressional ballot, Obama has votes to squander in the pursuit of a narrow, polarized victory.
But this approach presents risks. The Obama brand, crafted in the early Democratic primaries, has been undermined—as if the Geico gecko suddenly turned carnivore, red of tooth and claw. And this shift raises the prospect that Obama the idealist was merely a brand—an intentional distraction from a liberal voting record in the Senate, and a rather radical voting record in the Illinois Legislature on issues such as crime and abortion (he opposed bills to prevent early release of sexual offenders, to toughen sentences against gang members, and to protect children born alive after an attempted abortion).
In short, Democrats may finally win the presidency with the skills of Barack Obama and the ideology of Walter Mondale. But Obama should realize: His party’s partisans have persuaded him to run in a way that no modern Democrat has ever won before. The only recent models of Democratic victory—Jimmy Carter and Bill Clinton—were Southern centrists. Americans are angry and discontented, but America remains a center-right country.
While Obama has a shot at winning as a typical Democrat, McCain has no chance of winning as a typical Republican. McCain could effectively attack Obama’s thin experience and naive foreign policy views and rally the base into a Reagan-era lather, but it would still not be enough. If McCain does not directly challenge his party in his convention speech, his party will return to exile. Republicans should welcome the abuse.
McCain’s challenges include not only an unpopular president but recent memories of a Republican Congress that managed to be both ideologically rigid and ethically compromised. McCain has only two options: Be a reformer, or be a victim. The main benefit of Sarah Palin on the ticket is not her gender or her conservatism but her deserved reputation as a foe of Republican corruption in Alaska.
McCain has the background to deliver a message of reform with credibility. His own reputation for Republican china shop rampages is also deserved, on issues from campaign finance to immigration to torture to climate change. But the policy pronouncements of his campaign have, so far, been fairly conventional—more tax cuts, more drilling, modest health reforms. And Americans will not give credit to the past maverick without the promise of a future one.
Normally, it is a mistake for a convention speech to be programmatic; it is like delivering a State of the Union address at a state fair. But McCain needs to announce new and unexpected reform proposals. Perhaps he should courageously follow the logic of his health plan and promise health coverage as a universal right guaranteed by subsidies for the purchase of private health insurance. Perhaps he should embrace the goal of getting all American electricity from renewable and non-carbon sources by some ambitious but realistic date. Perhaps he should offer guaranteed funding of higher education in exchange for national service. Perhaps he should announce specific plans for the closing of Guantanamo, new ideas for winning hearts and minds in the developing world, or reforms of the often-scandalous Pentagon procurement system. Perhaps he should propose some ethics reform that genuinely angers every one of his congressional colleagues.
Whatever the content of McCain’s speech, there is one test of its success. Voters must be able to say: I have never heard that from a Republican before.
This article appears in full on CFR.org by permission of its original publisher. It was originally available here.