Sunday, 16 March 2008

McCain vs. McCain

Let’s face facts: John McCain could win the White House in November. Latest polls show him at level pegging with either Barack Obama or Hillary Clinton.

First though Senator McCain must decide which story he is going to tell people. There are at least two McCain narratives right now. One is about the maverick Republican senator who moved well outside his party’s comfort zone on taxes, campaign finance reform, climate change, environmental regulation, stem cell research and immigration. As E.J. Dionne jr. argues, this has presented some liberals with a big dilemma. They might even for vote for him.

It’s also a story that is uncomfortable to some Republican ears: one of McCain’s main challenges in the primaries has been to win over committed conservatives. One example of tough conservative bagging of Senator McCain came last month from Jed Babbin, a former office-holder in the George W. Bush administration who now writes for Human Events.

Conservative criticism of McCain has since been more muted, especially since mid February when he emerged as the near certain Republican frontrunner and was endorsed by George W. Bush. This leads into another story – McCain the conservative president who would carry on the occupation of Iraq indefinitely, has done a U-turn on Bush’s tax cuts and opposes government-sponsored universal health coverage. Says Dionne:

All this points to what is maddening about McCain. At times, he has acted with courage and honor. At other times, he behaves like a crafty politician. There is an independent side to McCain that has made him an authentic maverick. But on so many issues, he is nothing more (or less) than a thoroughly conventional conservative politician.

. . . So what's the path of integrity for one-time McCain fans in the center and on the left? It would be to base our judgments on the extent to which the rebellious McCain we admired has given way to the McCain who is as conservative as he always said he was -- even if many liberals (and, for different reasons, many conservatives) didn't want to believe him.

Anyone can tell two or more stories. But in politics you can’t let yourself be defined with stories that clash at a basic level with each other and then expect to win. Remember John Kerry, the Democratic nominee in 2004, who said that:

“I actually did vote for the $87 billion [for funding the Iraq war] before I voted against it.”

This and other changes of mind enabled opponents to tag him as a “flip flopper”. The first requirement for a story to be successful is to be simple. The second is to be consistent.

A recent article by Jonathan Chait, The New Republic, a liberal house journal, forensically exposes McCain's shift from left to right.

The prevalent view of McCain is that he is a generally conservative figure with a few maverick stances and an unwavering authenticity. . .

Actually, this assessment gets McCain almost totally backward. He has diverged wildly and repeatedly from conservative orthodoxy, but he has also reinvented himself so completely that it has become nearly impossible to figure out what he really believes . . .

As to which story voters will finally believe, we need to remember Howard Gardner’s conclusion in Leading Minds (1995), that when different stories come into competition, more often than not, the one that is less sophisticated and has stronger affective, mass appeal will become dominant. The “conservative” McCain story should eventually prevail. But it may confuse or even drive away liberal and independent voters.

So McCain’s campaign will, I think, try to fuse the two existing stories as he tries to hold the Republican base and reach out from it. He will run as a straight-talking problem solver, better qualified and stronger on national security than Senator Barack Obama (his most likely opponent); a change from the Bush years, but a change that carries fewer risks than a “left wing” first-term senator.

McCain’s stances on domestic policy issues present the Democrats with many opportunities. But I suspect the man from the New Republic is closer to the mark: maybe you just don’t know what Senator McCain thinks; an electorate that wants real change can’t be sure that he would deliver it.

At the 2004 Republican convention, delegates stood up and flapped giant flip-flops in front of the TV cameras, to mock Senator Kerry. Maybe these props are sitting in a warehouse somewhere, waiting for the Democrats to buy them up later this year. But will they get the story?

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