How Democrats Can Beat McCain

Ladies and gentlemen, your intrepid press corps has circled back around to its favorite narrative: Democrats divided! The party of the people in peril! The circular firing squad locked and loaded! And what of John McCain, the Maverick (TM), the Straight Talker (TM), the One Politician Who Never Does Anything For Political Reasons, So Full Of Integrity Is He (TM)? He's just trudging along, winning over voters left and right.

Based on the possibly unrepresentative sample of my friends, relatives, and acquaintances, Democrats have become extremely nervous in recent weeks. McCain, many think, has such appeal to independent voters (and lots of Democrats) that the Democratic candidate, whoever he or she may be, could be facing a uniquely tough Republican opponent.

It is true that in recent decades there has not been a presidential candidate (other than vice-presidents like Bush I and Gore) who is as familiar to the public as John McCain. Since his last presidential run in 2000, he has been an absolutely ubiquitous media presence. For example, since the beginning of 2001, McCain has made an astounding 152 appearances on Meet the Press, Face the Nation, and This Week -- far more than any other political figure. And it is certainly the case that McCain has the news media on his side to a degree no other candidate would dare to wish for. But there are a few simple reasons why Democrats should take a deep breath, find their happy place, and relax.

The first is that the structural context of the election -- in other words, the things neither candidate has the power to change -- presents obstacles to a Republican victory so enormous that overcoming them would be a feat of political mountain climbing heroic enough to make McCain the Tenzing Norgay of modern American elections. Foremost is the economy, being dragged down by a lethal combination of declining home values and high prices for gas and food. McCain can't say, "It's not my fault, because if they would only have listened to me, none of this would have happened," since he never had much to say about the economy one way or the other. (A quote for the ages: "The issue of economics is not something I've understood as well as I should. I've got Greenspan's book." Imagine the response if Barack Obama had been quoted saying, "The issue of national security is not something I've understood as well as I should. I've got Colin Powell's book.")

Moreover, as the Republican standard-bearer, McCain has almost no choice but to defend his party's economic record, as each passing day makes it more and more indefensible. Were he to acknowledge reality too plainly and criticize Bush's economic record, Republican loyalists might stay home in disgust. Expect to see lots of ads in the coming months mocking McCain's insistence that "there's been great progress economically" since Bush took office.

Then we have the war in Iraq. McCain's commitment to a glorious victory there, which will supposedly occur some time between now and the year 2108, sounds increasingly ridiculous, as do his Bushian assertions that, all things considered, the war was a good idea in the first place. According to Gallup, 63 percent of Americans now say the war was a mistake. "The new high in Iraq war opposition is also notable," they wrote, "because it is the highest ?mistake' percentage Gallup has ever measured for an active war involving the United States -- surpassing by two points the 61 [percent] who said the Vietnam War was a mistake in May 1971." Good luck changing Americans' minds about that.

The last structural factor is the fact that only once in the last 60 years has either party won a third consecutive presidential term -- and in that case, 1988, the outgoing president was reasonably popular. George W. Bush, on the other hand, is the most unpopular president in the history of opinion polling. Representing the party in power, as McCain does, always means defending the status quo. And the proportion of Americans thinking the country is on the wrong track now tops 80 percent in some polls.

Those three factors -- a tanking economy, an unpopular war, and a spectacularly unpopular lame-duck president -- set the context for the general election. And of all the arguments Democrats will offer against McCain, the idea that McCain represents the status quo at a time when nearly everyone wants change may be the easiest to make and to understand. After all, we're talking about someone who voted with the Bush administration 95 percent of the time in 2007, more than any other senator.

On the three most important policy issues of the 2008 election -- the war, the economy, and health care -- McCain is offering exactly what George W. Bush has given us, only more so. And whenever he tries to distance himself from the president, the facts come back to haunt him. Last week, for instance, McCain criticized Bush's handling of Hurricane Katrina (something he never saw fit to do until he began running for president). Want to know what McCain was doing on the day the levees broke and New Orleans began to drown? This photo tells the story.

Democrats might say, all that is fine and good, but it's John McCain we're talking about here! The guy was a war hero! He's a lovable rogue! His mavericky maverickness is irresistible! Which leads us to the most important reason that McCain has the cards stacked against him: He has never, in his entire career, been attacked from the left. And right now, the left is where the public is.

McCain has only faced two difficult elections before this year: his first campaign for the House of Representatives in 1982, and his 2000 run for the White House. In the former, his deft wielding of his POW story was enough to overcome (perfectly true) accusations of carpetbagging. In the latter, he was kneecapped by George W. Bush, who managed to rally to his side both the Republican establishment and the forces of the conservative movement, both of whom were displeased by McCain's advocacy for campaign-finance reform.

In this year's primaries, the only attacks McCain suffered from his Republican opponents were a few half-hearted criticisms for not being sufficiently nativist on immigration. When those attacks came, he promptly flip-flopped, even saying he wouldn't vote for his own immigration bill (and yet, reporters still pretend that he nobly refused to pander on the issue).

All of these attacks only served to enhance the brand identity McCain has labored so long to create. His opponents criticized him for alleged apostasy -- on immigration, or on his opposition to the Bush tax cuts in 2001 (and yes, he has flip-flopped on that, too). Though it might have given some hard-core Republicans pause, the critique reinforced the things McCain wants the wider electorate to believe about him: that he's the straight-talking maverick willing to stand up to his party.

Attacks on McCain from the left, on the other hand, will have the effect of undermining that brand. The Democratic nominee, and other progressives who will be criticizing McCain, will be arguing that he is not a maverick, or a straight talker, or a particularly principled politician. They'll have an enormous amount of ammunition to make that case, and as they make it month after month, the McCain brand will be reduced to a husk of its former self.

It is hard to think of a single issue on which McCain can argue that where he wants to take the country is where the country wants to go, which is why he is not talking much about issues at all. Instead, McCain is going straight to the Atwater-Rove playbook: saying Barack Obama is supported by terrorists and going on and on about Obama's former pastor. (And if you think that is supposed to impart a message to voters other than "This guy is the kind of scary black man you're supposed to fear," then you need to familiarize yourself with the last 40 years of Republican campaigns.)

That sort of thing could work, of course. But none of the Democrats who fell victim to it in the past had quite the list of advantages this year's nominee will have.

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