John McCain clearly sees his foreign policy experience and his personal biography as his strong suits in a potential match-up against Barack Obama. But he should get a debriefing from Hillary Clinton before he makes these the centerpiece of his campaign.
She, after all, has been spectacularly unsuccessful in convincing voters that “experience” trumps “change.” What makes McCain think he can do any better?
Yes, McCain might be tempted to bet that he can make a more compelling case about experience than Clinton has. That unlike Clinton, he really has been at the center of national security issues for a generation.
But voters, at least the millions registering or switching registration to vote in the Democratic primary, keep telling exit pollsters that “experience” matters less than the “ability to bring about change.” Polls show an all-time high percentage of voters think we are “on the wrong track.” It could just be that no amount or type of experience constitutes a compelling case this year.
McCain’s best hope lies in several alternative arguments, none of which is a slam dunk.
The first is that the “change” which voters are seeking is really the desire for bipartisanship and true independence. The Republicans have gotten more conservative, the Democrats more liberal, the acrimony more intense and the gridlock more frustrating. Voters don’t like it and want something different. Defining “change” as a shift to more bipartisan governance may send shivers up the spines of party activists on the right, but that notion may approximate the actual concerns of key independent voters.
McCain would argue that it takes a proven maverick—one who antagonized his own party’s base time and again and whose name regularly appears on legislation as half of the hyphenated title with liberal Democrats—to usher in this new era. He would remind voters that Obama, no matter how conciliatory his language, is an extreme liberal, and therefore incapable of bridging the partisan divide.
McCain will also seek to make Obama into a phony in voters’ eyes. The argument would be that for all of his opponent’s soothing rhetoric and appeal for high-mindedness, Obama is a Chicago pol, a bare-knuckled fighter who will only lead to more incendiary politics. Every time an Obama surrogate utters an obnoxious comment, McCain will cry hypocrisy. Similarly, he’ll argue that Obama’s reversal on public financing shows that Obama breaks his word like every other politician.
He will have to make Obama look more Clinton than Clinton, and to convince voters that the only way to “turn the page” is to choose him.
And he may argue that the particular version of “change” that Obama espouses is a fantasy, only workable when the lion lies down with the lamb. Sitting down with enemies and returning home from battlefields, McCain will argue, sounds great but is going to get us all killed. Sending lobbyists packing is a delightful vision, but they will eat Obama’s lunch on the first day.
Only a real veteran, the argument will go, can beat America’s enemies and wrestle the federal government to the mat.
So McCain does not lack strategic options. The problem is that they’ll all present similar challenges for McCain as they did for Clinton. She has tried to trump Obama’s experience, she has tried to present him as a two-faced, calculating careerist, she has argued that his grand-sounding visions are unworkable. Yet here Obama sits, on the verge of winning the Democratic nomination.
General election voters certainly may like McCain better than Hillary Clinton. But if McCain is to do better than she did against Obama, he’d better come up with a better plan of attack.