McCain's Vision Thing
by J Ro, Sun Jun 08, 2008 at 02:05:50 PM EDT
In the heat of the campaign season, pundits often forget that the American people like leadership. While there is endless debate on the fine points of each candidate's character (and occasionally debate about the issues), in the end, I believe Americans vote for candidates who offer a compelling and cohesive vision for America. That vision must give voters a story to connect the various proposals and anecdotes that politicians use on the campaign trail.
As I touched on a couple of weeks ago, John McCainhas had three months to run unopposed and so far, he hasn't been making a convincing case to the American people that he has an overarching idea of where America should be going. I've been watching McCain's campaign closely over the last few months, and the multiple and often competing "visions" he has been laying out don't coalesce into anything that makes sense.
McCain's original pitch to the American people after locking up the nomination was that he would be a "different kind of Republican," willing to reach out to those who don't often vote Republican and get their views. McCain then embarked on a tour of "forgotten places," mostly in Democratic strongholds in the South like New Orleans.
There, while holding a myriad of town hall meetings, he continued to support policies created by George Bush that hurt the very people he was supposed to be "reaching out to." John McCain was going on tour and listening, but there was no action behind his words. His straight talk was cold comfort to those in New Orleans still without housing or employment, or those in the rural South hurting from free trade agreements.
While ostensibly reaching out to people in "forgotten places,"McCain was also trying to solidify the Republican base. His speech on Supreme Court judges, in particular, was a dangerous bit of pandering. Many on the left and in the media missed the significance of that speech and the cases McCain referenced, but Jeffrey Toobin of the New Yorker caught it:
The giveaway here was that McCain did not reveal the subject matter of this supposed judicial outrage. The case was Roper v. Simmons, in which a seventeen-year-old boy murdered a woman after breaking into her home, and was sentenced to death. Justice Anthony M. Kennedy's opinion overturned the sentence and held that the Constitution forbids the death penalty for juvenile offenders. McCain's reference to the Court's "discourse" on the law of "other nations" refers to Kennedy's observation of the "stark reality that the United States is the only country in the world that continues to give official sanction to the juvenile death penalty." Likewise, Kennedy noted that the only other countries to execute juvenile offenders since 1990 have been China, Congo, Iran, Nigeria, Pakistan, Saudi Arabia, and Yemen. According to McCain, the United States apparently belongs on this dismal list.
Nor were his references to penumbras and emanations accidental. Those words come from Justice William O. Douglas's 1965 opinion for the Court in Griswold v. Connecticut, in which the Justices recognized for the first time a constitutional right to privacy, and ruled that a state could not deny married couples access to birth control. The "meaning of life" was a specific reference, too. It comes from the Court's 1992 opinion in Planned Parenthood v. Casey, which reaffirmed the central holding of Roe v. Wade, and forbade the states from banning abortion. In short, this one passage in McCain's speech amounted to a dog whistle for the right--an implicit promise that he will appoint Justices who will eliminate the right to privacy, permit states to ban abortion, and allow the execution of teen-agers.
A speech slyly promoting the death penalty for teenagers and raging against birth control and abortion cuts against McCain's message as a "different kind of Republican."
Finally, on Tuesday, with the Democratic nomination all but over, John McCain sought to re-brand himself again. This time, he declared that he represented the "right kind of change" in front of a hideous green backdrop. In his speech, McCain argued that Obama represented a return to 70s and 80s style liberalism, his policies were different from Bush, and he has the experience necessary to bring about the "right kind of change."
It should be pretty clear to most people here that none of these arguments are going to work. Once again, Jeffrey Toobin had it right, proclaiming on CNN, "That was pathetic!"
First, does anyone really believe, after listening to Barack Obama, that he is looking backwards in his policies? Obama has been able to convince huge swaths of America that he is looking beyond the partisan battles of our past towards a new, hopeful future. There is nothing in the language that he uses or the way he presents himself that smacks of old, Carter-era politics. It's hard for me to imagine that line of attack sticking.
Next, while McCain believes his policy positions are original, I've yet to uncover a single major plan that breaks from Bush's course in any way. (I used to be able to point to global warming, but given his recent statement that he's against Lieberman-Warner, I can't even say that anymore.) Put that together with McCain's voting record - 100% with Bush this year and 95% with Bush last year - and you begin to perceive the truth. McCain's presidency would represent four more years of Bush.
Lastly, John McCain seems to want to fight the experience vs. change battle again. With all due respect towards Hillary Clinton, that battle has already been fought. Change won. If McCain wants to have that discussion again, be my guest. I don't think it's going to work out any differently this time around.
Of course, McCain's schizophrenic messaging can be easily contrasted with Barack Obama's clear voice. For better or for worse, Americans know what Obama stands for - hope and change. All of Obama's policies, anecdotes, and language fit under this rhetorical umbrella. While it's difficult to understand why McCaindoesn't support the G.I. Bill or wants a manned mission to Mars, given his campaign theme, Obama's focus on technology and nuclear disarmament fits right in with his hope and change message.
McCain has no coherent vision and seems to be running on his checkered Senate voting record and his war-hero persona. As Holly Bailey and Jon Meacham at Newsweek point out, he is beginning to primarily define himself by what he is not (Bush, Obama), a sure-fire losing strategy. Americans - who by and large care about their country but don't have the inclination to understand every nuance of policy of character - tend to elect candidates with a coherent message because they feel secure that whatever a candidate's policies are, they will fit into the message they are preaching.
There is a lot of time between now and November, but so far, Obama has a 17 month head start in getting out a clear message to America. McCain just might be playing catch-up this entire race.
(P.S. If you're wondering what all those random links reading "McCain" are about, I'm participating in Chris Bowers' search optimization project "Searching For McCain," and you should too!)
J Ro's opinions are his own and do not represent any other person or organization.