Thursday, September 11, 2008

For Obama, McCain, Standing Pat May Be The Wrong Approach

By Stuart Rothenberg

The final phase of the 2008 presidential campaign has begun. Sen. Barack Obama (D-Ill.) has the edge over Republican standard-bearer Sen. John McCain (Ariz.), but the race is competitive, so the next two months will determine the winner.

McCain has the ability and a strong incentive now to change his emphasis as he tries to appeal to swing voters. Obama doesn’t appear to have as urgent a need to make a statement about himself and his candidacy, but if he does, he could dramatically improve his prospects in a race that he has not yet wrapped up.

After solidifying and energizing his right flank with the selection of Alaska Gov. Sarah Palin to be his running mate, McCain surely has a newfound freedom to run back to the political center, emphasizing his maverick credentials and differences with his party. He should do so, and he began that process with his acceptance speech.

While voters now tell pollsters that the economy is the top issue, Palin and former New York Mayor Rudy Giuliani spent much of their time Wednesday night in St. Paul, Minn., declaring what one convention Republican delegate called a “culture war,” pitting rural America against the national media, Hollywood and the nation’s elite.

That may seem strange, but it isn’t.

True, many Americans are concerned about the health and direction of the economy, and they surely want the next president to have a detailed economic agenda to restore the economy’s health. But because neither party has an easy answer to the nation’s problems, the nation’s still-deep cultural divide becomes an obvious place for the McCain/Palin ticket to go to energize conservatives and to appeal to voters who otherwise might think about voting for the Democratic ticket because of economic uncertainty.

Democrats still don’t understand the cultural divide — they think that talking about values or religion will automatically attract religious voters even if the party’s policy positions are totally at odds with those voters’ positions — and they have nominated a ticket that apparently still has limited appeal in small-town and culturally conservative America.

But McCain’s problem — and Obama’s advantage — is that it is very unlikely that there are enough voters in small-town America to elect McCain to the presidency this time. He cannot win by getting every Republican vote out there, since most polls show Democrats with about a 10-point generic advantage.

McCain must return to his maverick image, and he and Palin are well-positioned to deliver a reform message that diverges from Republican orthodoxy. This would, of course, require McCain to talk again about some issues and themes that will make Republican regulars and conservatives uncomfortable, not merely to ramble on about how Washington, D.C., is broken or how he will shake things up when he gets to the White House.

McCain will need to offer specifics and new ideas, something that he did not do Thursday evening. It’s his only way to appeal to swing suburbanites and working-class Democrats, two key constituencies for November.

Conservatives no longer find McCain merely acceptable as an alternative to Obama. They are with the McCain/Palin ticket wholeheartedly, which gives him considerable freedom over the next two months to tack left.

And Obama? The Democrat’s game plan looks pretty clear: Continue to ride the wave of change, convince still-undecided voters that he is a safer choice than they now think, and continue to portray McCain as little more than a Republican successor to President Bush.

It’s a good plan, and it may well be good enough to win at least 270 Electoral College votes, especially if Palin falters, McCain performs poorly in the debates, or Democrats truly have changed the political arithmetic by registering new voters.

But Obama has not done one thing that I was sure he would do by now — one thing that could have already improved his prospects in the fall. He needs to find an issue or controversy with which he strongly disagrees with his party — or with a core Democratic constituency group — to prove to swing voters that he’s not merely another elitist Northern liberal.

Obama talks a good game about disagreeing without being disagreeable and about coming together to solve the nation’s problems. But Republicans have rather successfully portrayed him as a man who is all talk and no action. And, they are sure to say, when he takes action, it’s predictably liberal.

I thought for sure that by now Obama would have found an issue or two to break with his anti-war left or with his labor union allies or with his environmental allies. But so far he hasn’t found that Sister Souljah moment that grabs the nation’s attention, causes real upset among some of his supporters and proves his political independence. He may need to find one to guarantee victory in the fall.

This column first appeared in Roll Call on September 8, 2008. 2008 © Roll Call Inc. All rights reserved. Reprinted with permission.