Hillary Clinton must be feeling John McCain’s pain. For months and months she battled against Obamamania — the lofty rhetoric, the swooning girls, the giant crowds and the massive turnout of young people. She tried to mock and belittle his language. (Who can forget the cringe-inducing "Change you can Xerox"?) She tried to raise doubts with the " 3 a.m." ad about Barack Obama’s readiness to serve as commander in chief. But in the end she lost. Now McCain is trying his hand, using some of the very same arguments.
His Celebrity ad and a subsequent one dubbed the "Fan Club" go straight at Obama’s mass-movement popularity. His message, not unlike Clinton’s, is clear: Obama is very cool but he is not presidential material. And he goes one step further: that Obama’s "celebrity" status has rendered him clueless to the concerns (e.g., $4 gas) of average Americans.
And on the 3 a.m. front, McCain has made the most of international developments — the success of the surge and his own warnings about Vladimir Putin’s imperialistic ambitions — to make the argument that his opponent lacks the experience and judgment to lead in dangerous times. McCain’s polling numbers show that he leads Obama by a considerable margin on Iraq, national security and the war on terror.
Still, McCain trails in the national polls, albeit narrowly. And it is worth asking whether the very themes that Clinton used can be successfully recycled by McCain in the general election. McCain holds out hope on several fronts.
First, he is getting some help (at no cost to his own war chest) from free media. They were certainly not receptive to carrying Clinton’s message of steely-eyed resentment about Obama’s appeal. But in the general election the media has gotten in on the Obama-debunking act. Late-night comics and serious news commentators have picked up on the "arrogance" and "presumptuousness" themes. The cable news networks have given mass exposure to McCain’s Obama-mocking ads. And Obama and his ever-enthusiastic supporters probably did not help the cause with the mass rally in Berlin and the advent of the easily ridiculed additions to the Obama phenomenon like the "O" salute.
In this regard, McCain also has been helped by time and the ever-fleeting attention span of the public looking for the newest craze. What was new and stunning in January — a mass rally of screaming young people — now seems ho-hum. Obama will have his chance at the convention to pull out all the stops, but after 200,000 flag-waving Europeans, the crowd in Denver may not seem so novel.
McCain also has the benefit of continued world instability. Unlike Clinton, he really does have years of foreign policy experience and actually was under enemy fire. His support of the surge has been largely validated by events. In the wake of the Russian invasion of Georgia, McCain seems ready (indeed tailor-made) for the role of commander in chief if we are headed for a redux of the Cold War. (He, after all, was there for the first one.)
But McCain’s greatest advantage is his audience. Clinton really never stood a chance in a Democratic primary in which appeals to idealism rang true with receptive urban elites, African-Americans and young people. A broader-base general electorate may be a harder sell for Obama. Less starry-eyed working-class voters and those in McCain’s age bracket (who turn out in huge number on Election Day) may be the very skeptics to whom McCain can appeal. And, of course, those Clinton voters who agreed with her 3 a.m. appeal are in McCain’s target audience.
Also, it is indisputable that the McCain camp has a funnier, lighter touch than the Clinton camp. In part because of limited resources, they have discovered the strength of funny Web-based ads and the value of mocking (rather than screaming at) the media for their sometimes all-too-apparent infatuation with Obama. McCain in essence has decided it is far easier to use Obama’s celebrity aura (and the public’s growing suspicion of the news media) against him than to try to lecture voters that they shouldn’t be inspired by Obama’s soaring rhetoric.
Will it work? Clinton found out the hard way that experience, a full policy portfolio and a familiar face don’t always triumph against a novel, alluring mass phenomenon. But McCain is hoping that Clinton was just a poor messenger for a winning message: The world is too dangerous and the country too bollixed up to trust to the new kid on the block.
Ironically, McCain’s hope is that the worse things become in the last months of the Bush presidency, both at home and abroad, the more receptive voters may be to his appeal that a sober, experienced hand is needed to get the country out of the ditch. If not, McCain and Clinton will have plenty to commiserate about.