Barack Obama has won the Democratic nomination. Magnanimous Democrats might applaud Hillary Clinton for energizing the party and helping to register millions of new voters, but her contribution was not merely to her own side.
Clinton’s failures and successes provide some invaluable lessons for John McCain as well—if he’s alert enough to heed them.
Clinton’s most serious error, her delinquency in recognizing that this is the greatest “change” election in a generation, should serve as a warning to McCain, who is already saddled with the most damaging label in this election season: “Republican.” The winning message in this election is not likely to be “Experience” or “Ready on Day One.” And it certainly won’t be “How to Build on the George Bush Legacy.”
In every poll, voters overwhelmingly tell us that they think the country is on the wrong track and want someone who can take us in a new direction. McCain might be able to argue that Obama’s direction is faulty or even dangerous. But McCain is unlikely to convince voters that the best reason to vote for him is, as Obama ever so indelicately points out, his “fifty years of service to his country.” (Conversely, Obama’s own modest résumé never seemed to bother most voters.)
If the McCain camp had been paying attention, they might also have noticed that Clinton got nowhere with cynical attacks on Obama’s inspirational rhetoric. “Change you can Xerox” will go down as one of the lamest debate insults in modern times. Whining about his big rallies and fancy phrases sounded envious and small-minded and severely underestimated Americans’ desire to be inspired by leaders. Republican heirs of Ronald Reagan should know better than anyone that politics is the art of inspiring people to join your cause. Grousing that Obama does it exceptionally well is not a recipe for success.
But Clinton did not just leave the campaign trail littered with mistakes and miscalculations. In her run of successes through Texas, Ohio and Pennsylvania, she also carved a path that a savvy McCain team might follow.
While some conservatives are loath to admit it, millions of working-class Americans don’t feel like they have benefited from macroeconomic growth, free trade and globalization. By identifying on a visceral level with these voters, pledging to fight for them and offering specific policy prescriptions aimed at their daily concerns, Clinton found her greatest electoral success.
If McCain commits to expanding and reinvigorating the American dream of upward mobility and to ensuring that the playing field is at least level for these voters, he stands a chance to inherit these voters who, Clinton has shown, admire a feisty, combative and world-wise champion.
Clinton also showed the weakness in Obama’s conflict-adverse personal style. Debates are not his forte. When she, with some help from debate moderators, pressed him both on values issues (she wouldn’t have stayed in that church) and substance (doesn’t raising the cap on payroll taxes hurt people who aren’t rich?), she made headway, cementing her image as the tougher and more aggressive of the two. (It wasn’t coincidental that he gave up debating after Pennsylvania.)
McCain, too, will need to walk a tightrope (one he didn’t always traverse successfully in his own primary’s debates). In the debates against Obama, McCain will need to appear assertive but not nasty in order to convince voters that he really is the “take charge” candidate, the most credible leader. And Clinton showed that Obama can be made to seem defensive, even irritable when pressed.
Clinton also bequeathed McCain one very large gift in the form of her “3 a.m.” TV ad, leaving behind a healthy dose of doubt about Obama’s ability to assume the role of commander in chief. She did a fair job of rattling voters by suggesting that Obama just might not be tough enough or prepared to be a wartime president. (And McCain will not be hobbled by fake memories of sniper fire, nor will he be limited to an electorate purely of Democratic primary-goers.)
Now, it is an open question whether the McCain camp has learned all or even most of these lessons. It may be easy for them to discount Clinton’s experience as the legacy of a flawed and failed candidate. But she turned out to be a pretty formidable campaigner who fought Obama to a near-tie. McCain’s team could do worse than to learn from her example.