One thing that has struck me recently is the degree to which John McCain’s campaign seems to be falling into some of the same traps that ensnared John Kerry in 2004.
On the surface, it seems remarkable that McCain could become Kerry. For one, he’s a Republican. Democrats are unwilling to attack his military service like Republicans did to Kerry. (And don’t get me started on Wes Clark’s comments. Even if you do read it as an attack, which I don’t, it was clearly orders of magnitude less that Republicans wearing purple heart bandaids to questions whether Kerry was wounded enough.) Secondly, McCain is clearly a better politician than Kerry. Nonetheless, McCain really does seem to be falling into some Kerry-esque traps.
To begin with, McCain has placed an awful lot of emphasis on his military service. One thing that Kerry showed is that while voters may like military service, they aren’t likely to vote on it. Talking too much about what happened 35 years ago is a surefire way to lose an election today.
The second area where the McCain campaign seems to be emulating the Kerry camp is on Iraq. On the surface that idea seems absurd. But it isn’t. One of Kerry’s biggest problems on Iraq was that he was stuck in the past. He spent the campaign trying to relitigate the decision to go to war, instead of focusing on the way forward. Kerry never really distinguished himself from Bush on the way forward in Iraq. Instead, Kerry was seen as second guessing the decision to go to war without offering a new way forward.
McCain is doing the same thing. He is betting his entire campaign on relitigating the surge. He doesn’t have a way forward. When Iraqi Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki agreed with Barack Obama on the way forward in Iraq, McCain responed by going back to the surge. Voters aren’t interested in the past. They are interested in the future. Obama is offering a clear way forward and out of Iraq. McCain won’t say anything about it, except that troops will come home at some point in the future.
Also, like Kerry, McCain hasn’t created any sharp contrasts on other foreign policy issues. He tried on the diplomacy issue, but never got any real traction with it. He just adopted Obama’s position going forward on Afghanistan. If McCain fights the election on the past he will lose, just like Kerry did. McCain is in a tough situation. He doesn’t have a strong position to articulate going forward. He really needs to find one, or he’ll be stuck in the same trap Kerry was stuck in. And we all know how that turns out.