John McCain Morphs Into Hillary Clinton

Political pundits and even the politicians themselves seem to like comparing the candidates to someone else in public life. John McCain has compared Obama to both Williams Jenning Bryan and Jimmy Carter, while others have compared him more to both Ronald Reagan and John Kennedy. Recently McCain has compared himself to Teddy Roosevelt, which he undoubtedly prefers to John Heilemann’s comparison of him to Hillary Clinton. Hellemann finds that McCain is now running Hillary Clinton’s campaign against Obama. He first notes the changes in campaign staff, but argues that the comparisons extend beyond this:

That Clinton and McCain would run similar races might seem odd. Their ideological differences are severe, and no one sane would ever call Clinton a maverick or McCain a feminist. But it’s also true that they share a view of politics and policy. They venerate the Senate as a noble institution, not as the imagination-deadening, soul-destroying hellhole that it is. They regard legislative experience, forging compromises in the trenches, as formative and indispensable. They see having national-security chops as a sine qua non for sitting in the Oval Office.

It was this conception of politics and the presidency, however, that got Hillary into so much trouble in her battle with Obama. And while McCain largely avoids the rhetorical traps she fell into—the laundry-listy rhetoric, the countless small-bore policy proposals—the thrust of his campaign is much the same as hers was: The emphasis on résumé, the willful avoidance of grappling with the desire for change so evident in the electorate, and, perhaps most problematic, the eschewal of big, bold, animating ideas and grand thematics.

This was not, it should be said, the kind of campaign that McCain and his advisers planned at the outset. Back in the days when McCain was still being guided by John Weaver, the strategist–cum–soul mate who crafted his message in 2000 and then fell out of favor in mid-2007 when McCain’s campaign imploded, the idea had been to run on a handful of sweeping reformist goals—entitlement reform, ethics reform, immigration reform, spending reform, etc.—and position McCain as willing to put country ahead of personal political ambition. How? As reported first by The Atlantic’s Marc Ambinder, when McCain announced his candidacy, he was “inches away” from pledging to serve only one term if elected. “It would have been the most selfless act in modern American politics,” a Republican told Ambinder—and one that would have served as a powerful contrast point in a race against either Clinton or Obama.

But McCain was persuaded at the last minute to abandon the idea by his friends Senator Lindsey Graham and former senator Phil Gramm—just as Clinton was convinced not to run a bolder, more human campaign by the more conservative voices in her sphere. Since then, McCain’s effort, like Clinton’s, has been increasingly poll-driven (offshore oil drilling, anyone?), corporate (the phalanx of lobbyists that surrounds him, robbing him of his reformist cred), and almost entirely lacking any positive vision of what he wants to achieve as president, beyond winning the war in Iraq. Indeed, McCain’s assorted flip-flops, notably regarding his position on the Bush tax cuts, have left him vulnerable to the charge that was ultimately most damaging to Clinton and is even more damaging to him, given his image as a principled straight-talker: that he will say and do anything to win.

McCain’s lack of a positive vision, along with the perception that his campaign is primarily about saying anything to win, might be the most damaging comparison to Clinton. Hillary Clinton campaigned as the inevitable winner, failing to give many voters any real reason to support her (unless her gender was a sufficient reason). Once she no longer looked like a sure winner many Democrats saw no reason to support her, and her desperation measures only gave Democrats a stronger reason to vote against her.

The primaries became all about Obama. It soon became clear that Obama would win as long as he could convince the voters he was ready to be president. Experience did not matter much as all three of the top tier candidates had far less experience than the second tier candidates. Obama’s lack of experience might even have been a plus. For those of us who have been dissatisfied with the status quo in government, and found the Democrats to be preferable to the Republicans but only marginally so, an outsider to Washington might have been the best solution. Having experience teaching Constitutional law and in the state legislature provided Obama with sufficient experience to  still be considered a credible candidate.

With McCain following Clinton’s strategy, the general election campaign remains all about Obama. He will likely win as long as he can convince voters in the general election campaign that he is capable of being president. The Republicans might run an even dirtier campaign than Clinton, but this is far from certain as Obama has shown considerable skill in deflecting dirty attacks. Just as dirty tactics backfired against Clinton by providing more reason to vote for the alternative, Republicans who resort to Rove style attacks will also remind voters of why they don’t want four more years of Bush/Rove/Clinton style politics. Unless McCain gives voters a real reason to vote for him, a majority are likely to vote for Obama, regardless if they are doing so out of a desire for change, support for his views, or just because they are excited about the fresh new face in politics.

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