Patrick Ruffini thinks Democrats are making a big mistake in pushing the message that John McCain would effectively be George Bush’s third term.
The problem is that it runs counter to some deeply ingrained perceptions about McCain, the most transparently un-Bush candidate Republicans could have nominated. How does one overlook the fact that amongst Republican primary voters most dissatisfied with Bush, McCain dominated. Or McCain’s bitter rivalry with the President that lingered long beyond the 2000 election, culminating in charges that he threatened to leave the party, and now, that he didn’t even vote for President Bush in 2000? How does Arianna’s story square with the narrative of “McSame?”
The Democrats have chosen to run the same campaign against McCain as they would have run against Romney or Huckabee. This will turn out to be a strategic mistake.
Why? Because they ignore the new media reality that no amount of points on television can overturn a narrative backed up by the free media. The left’s “McSame” campaign is an example of the particularly crude communications tactic of countermessaging. Countermessaging consists solely of challenging a prevailing public narrative. The media is not liberal. There was no housing bubble. Global warming is a myth.
Ruffini is right that “Bush-McCain tensions have been a recurring theme in our collective political psyche for nearly a decade.” But what he ignores is the fact that to win the Republican nomination John McCain moved towards Bush on a huge variety of issues. The fact is that on the two biggest issues the electorate will be facing this fall, Iraq and the economy, there is very little difference between John McCain. There used to be, particularly on the economy, but there just aren’t now.
Iraq is the clearest example of where McCain is running for Bush’s third term. He has simply offered no strategic thinking on Iraq beyond Bush’s. He doesn’t have an exit strategy, or even long term strategic goals for Iraq, beyond Bush’s position that we’ll leave when Iraq is a stable, peaceful, self governing democracy. That’s obviously not going to happen anytime soon. Obama, on the other hand, has clear strategic goals. Agree with his policy or not, he thinks that staying in Iraq is damaging to America’s ability to fight the war against al-Qaeda and that is in our strategic interest to withdraw the vast majority of our troops. McCain hasn’t offered anything beyond Bush’s thinking.
On the economy, McCain used to have substantial differences with Bush. He opposed Bush’s tax cut and had a strong deficit hawk streak in him. Those differences disappeared when John McCain ran for President. He went from opposing the tax cuts because they were fiscally irresponsible, but to appeal to the Republican base he flip-flopped and made the extension of the tax cuts a central element of his candidacy. But beyond that, he embraced the Bush/Grover Norquist position that you can never, ever raise any taxes no matter what. Plus, in an effort to appeal to the Republican base, McCain is now offering more of the same type of tax cuts Bush offered. Again, McCain is offering more of the same.
Beyond Iraq and the economy, the issue that McCain is most associated with is immigration reform. Yet on immigration reform McCain is known for standing with Bush against the Tancredo wing of the Republican party. Again, this helps the Democrats in their quest to associate McCain with Bush, even if it a good policy.
The economy isn’t the only issue where McCain has moved closer to Bush. McCain’s recently announced healthcare plan was described in the San Francisco Chronicle as “similar to one Bush put forth in his 2007 State of the Union address.” The New York Times wrote that “His proposal to move away from employer-based coverage was similar to one that President Bush pushed for last year, to little effect.” MSNBC asked if McCain’s plan was “Just Like Bush’s Plan.”
McCain used to be strongly opposed to the influence of the religious right in American politics. He famously called Jerry Falwell and Pat Robertson “agents of intolerance.” Yet, to win over the Republican base, McCain gave last year’s commencement address at Falwell’s Liberty University. And today he’s hanging out with folks like John Hagee and Rod Parsley.
John McCain’s signature foreign policy proposal is his plan for a league of democracies. Yet even that is offering more of Bush’s policy. What McCain is essentially proposing is institutionalizing Bush’s coalition of the willing and using it to authorize future military expeditions.
Ruffini writes that “The Democrats have chosen to run the same campaign against McCain as they would have run against Romney or Huckabee.” There are two very good reasons why such a strategy makes sense.
Firstly, McCain ran for the Republican nomination as a Bush/Romney clone. If you think back, McCain most intense fights with Romney weren’t about policy proposals. They were about who deviated most from the tax-cutting/pro-Iraq Republican orthodoxy. The fights of the whole Republican primary where all about who raised taxes during in their previous position (a charge that came after Huckabee, Romney, Giuliani, and McCain) and who was insufficiently enthusiastic about the surge. Indeed, the whole GOP primary was about personality, not policy. With the slight exception of Huckabee, all of the candidates ran within the same orthodoxy. All of the candidates, including McCain, are creatures of the Bush Republican party.
Secondly, Bush is the biggest electoral albatross in history. Bush is more unpopular than Nixon. Given that McCain is offering a very similar policy platform to Bush, tying him to Bush makes a lot of political sense, and can be expected to be successful.
Now, I think Democrats would be very smart to take Ruffini’s advice and “always juxtapose with McCain’s past Bush opposition to make him appear inconsistent. But publicly recognize that Bush and McCain were once opposed, so you don’t take the credibility hit you would from straight-up McCain Maverick Denial.”
Such a approach would be doubly useful. It would attack McCain’s credibility and tie him to Bush. I think that Democrats will be smart enough to follow this tack. We’re at the very beginning of Democratic attacks on McCain and it does make some sense to tie him to Bush first, then go after the flip-flopping. Plus, Barack Obama’s media operation is much more effective than David Brock’s and will be better at attacking McCain. But the simple fact that McCain is offering a similar platform to Bush will seriously harm him in the general election.