The Democratic strategy for beating John McCain is pretty simple. Its principal element: Tie McCain to President Bush, no matter how hard he struggles to break free.
Last week illustrated the maneuvering over Bush. McCain started the week with a speech on global warming, where he broke with the President. By the week’s end, though, McCain had been drawn into a fight over Mideast policy between Barack Obama and the White House, with McCain taking Bush’s side. Obama knows that voters do not yet trust him on foreign policy. But he also knows that they are even more wary of what Democrats call “a third Bush term.”
The strategic choices for McCain are much trickier. Bush is unpopular with the public at large, but many Republicans still support him. The Republicans who disapprove of Bush are split further, between those who fault Bush for being too conservative and those who fault him for not being conservative enough.
McCain won the Republican primaries mostly because of his strength among anti-Bush Republicans, but he still has far to go among anti-Bush independents. Pro-Bush Republicans, meanwhile, remain distrustful of him, and every time he courts the more moderate voters — by reiterating his support for caps on carbon emissions, for example — their distrust grows.
Under the circumstances, McCain cannot really run either as an anti-Bush or as a pro-Bush Republican. He has to move beyond Bush. He also has to move beyond his party’s divisions over Bush. Too many of the anti-Bush Republicans believe that merely returning to a pre-Bush Eden of rock-ribbed conservatism would bring the party back to power.
In truth, Newt Gingrich’s Republican Party was declining in the 1990s. Once welfare reform passed and crime dropped, middle-class Americans stopped seeing the federal government as a threat to their interests and values. They began to look more kindly on government activism. Bush’s “compassionate conservatism” was a response to this public mood. Its inadequacy is now obvious to almost everyone.
Don’t forget, kids, if it’s Wednesday, you can find me on the Street!