On the flight to Puerto Rico, Sen. Bob Menendez (D-NJ) turned to former President Bill Clinton and told him one of the reasons his wife was losing was because the campaign too often allowed Sen. Barack Obama to frame the issues.
When Clinton ran in the 1990s, he stayed on message – most famously with his "it’s the economy, stupid" rundown of the first President Bush. He won, Menendez observed, because Clinton forced his opponent to respond to the issues on his terms.
A flummoxed Bush was left marveling at supermarket product scanning devices while Clinton told voters, "I feel your pain."
Sixteen years later, his wife didn’t capture the issues and present them aggressively enough, in Menendez’s view, and she suffered the consequences.
Now, as he shifts gears from Clinton to Obama, Menendez is on the offensive, trying to frame the immigration and ethics debates against Sen. John McCain, a day before the presumptive Republican presidential nominee lands in New Jersey for a Burlington County campaign rally.
Like Obama and McCain, Menendez voted for the Immigration Reform Act of 2002, which included citizenship pathways for undocumented workers – measures that pitted McCain against the far-right reaches of his party and set him on a choppy course toward the nomination.
"He abandoned the effort when he was getting whipsawed in the Republican primaries," said Menendez, referring to McCain’s primary era retreat from a follow-up to the multifaceted bill, in favor of a border fence-first approach to the problem of illegal immigration.
As McCain inches back to the middle now on the issue with what Menendez describes as vague appeals to "All God’s children," the senator says Latino voters will see through an unfortunate and insulting case of flip-flopping.
"It’s worse than what they used to say about John Kerry," said Menendez, recalling his party’s 2004 presidential nominee’s "I actually did vote for the $87 billion, before I voted against it" gaffe.
Seeking to shore up Latino voters by highlighting McCain’s contradictory immigration record, Menendez is also reaching out to those independents he says will appreciate the difference between Obama and McCain on ethics issues. "Obama has not taken any PAC money," said the senator.
As excited about McCain’s visit to the Garden State tomorrow as Menendez is uninspired, state Sen. Bill Baroni (R-Mercer), state chair of the Republican presidential candidate’s campaign, attempted to counter Menendez on the latter issue.
"John McCain has taken the lead on campaign finance reform and ethics reform his entire career," he said. "If (Menendez) and the Obama campaign want to make the debate about ethics, we welcome that debate."
While healing-phase Democrats here seek to capitalize on Obama’s ability to generate urban votes, and Menendez takes special care to make sure Latino voters have good reason to respond to the Democratic candidate, Baroni underscores McCain’s refusal to give ground in New Jersey’s Democratic Party strongholds.
"Barack Obama has not been here four times in five months, as John McCain has," said Baroni. "John McCain has been to Hamilton, Jersey City and Lakewood, and he will be in Pemberton tomorrow."
Appropriating a Clinton campaign slogan at a time when the former presidential candidate’s followers are gingerly recovering from a bruising primary, Baroni added of his war hero candidate, "McCain is ready to lead on day one."
Menendez knows the Republicans with McCain won’t consign themselves to the suburbs, and specified that given general election history, not just Obama but any Democratic presidential candidate needs to do better than the typical 60-40% among Latino voters.
"We cannot accept four more years of a Bush agenda, including an economy that doesn’t work for working families," Menendez said. "Latinos are the single highest group of unemployed, with no insurance. Within this American agenda., they have disproportionately felt an impact. Sen. Obama’s vision on healthcare and the economy alone will strike a responsive chord among Latinos."
As he personally transitions to Obama after the hard Clinton loss, Menendez mentioned that the other significant mistake of her campaign – along with its less than Clintonesque approach to framing issues – was her failure to compete in caucus states.
"By not showing up, she lost the opportunity to add to her big state wins," the senator said.
Those two campaign strategy misfires, more than her voting record, constituted the reasons for Clinton’s loss, in Menendez’s view.
The Iraq War wasn’t a factor, he added.
Although Menendez voted against the 2002 war resolution, and Obama publicly declared his opposition to what has become an unpopular and costly war, Sen. Hillary Clinton, like McCain, voted in favor of authorizing President George W. Bush to employ troops in the Middle Eastern country.
Unlike McCain, she backtracked on the war and advocated a pullout of the troops, but Menendez said the flip-flop tag didn’t apply to her.
"As I would often say, she was the candidate who could end the war for us," the senator said. "She is on the armed services committee, and has the experience that prepares her very clearly to be commander-in-chief."