Covering the Front and Back Pages of the Newspaper
February 15, 2008
POLITICS: Advice for McCain vs. Obama: Pork and Earmarks Will Not Cut It
OK, with McCain stuffing the Huck-insurgency back in the bottle Tuesday, it's time to start thinking general election strategy (see here for a RedState roundtable we did on how he should try to win over skeptical conservatives). Now, we know the basics of what John McCain needs to do to beat Hillary Clinton, which is mostly based on (1) reminding voters that she is Hillary Clinton and (2) letting voters get prolonged exposure to watching and listening to Hillary Clinton.
But Barack Obama, if he manages to keep his back free of Clinton shivs long enough to secure the nomination, will be a more challenging nut to crack; he has far lower built-in negatives and is surrounded by a protective heat shield of worshipful press coverage. He's unlike the unlikeable and fundamentally disingenuous candidates the Democrats ran in 2000 and 2004, and much more similar to the candidates they ran in 1972 and 1984. That last analogy suggests why Obama, strong as he is on the surface, should not be confused with an unbeatable candidate.
Anyway, I'll start with one specific issue that I think needs not to be overplayed in a campaign against Obama: pork-barrel spending and earmarks. Yes, it's a hot issue and a worthy one. Yes, it contributed to the air of fiscal irresponsibility and corruption that fed the GOP's defeat in 2006, and from which McCain needs to distance himself. Yes, it's important to McCain's good-government, spending-hawk brand, is an issue he attacks with genuine enthusiasm and helps serve as a firewall against the charge that McCain's superior experience is a liability because he doesn't represent Abstract Nouns like a man who just got to Washington in 2005 and hasn't even located the big spigot where the taxpayer money flows from yet.
But for all of that, if Sen. Obama is the nominee, I hope Sen. McCain is clued in early to the fact that this issue is not going to be a useful distinction against Obama, for three reasons.
1. People like Obama and think he embodies Change from Business as Usual. Trying to change that perception is going to be harder work than it's worth. You beat a guy like Obama by burrowing into his fundamental naivete, extremism and inexperience, by showing how his combination of extreme liberalism and lack of experience leads him to be very wrong on the very biggest of the big things, and to take extremist positions on cultural-signifier issues. Small-bore goo-goo issues won't do that.
2. One of Obama's very few actual accomplishments in DC was co-sponsoring the "porkbusters" bill on earmark disclosures with Tom Coburn. Granted, Coburn did all the heavy lifting, but Obama will get (deservedly) some credit for putting himself out there on the issue and reaching across the aisle.
3. McCain's been in DC so long, and Obama so little time, that it will be much easier to find examples of projects McCain himself has brought home than Obama. That's not to say that Obama has no weaknesses in this area; one can certainly point to letters Obama wrote as a state Senator in support of a $14 million taxpayer-funded housing project that yielded more than $850,000 in fees for now-indicted Obama fundraiser Tony Rezko. But while McCain has fought the good fight against some of Congress' most ridiculous wastes of money, he has never himself been entirely immune to bringing home what Arizona voters wanted.
McCain will talk about pork and earmarks in his stump speech; as I noted above, it's part of his appeal. But those of us who remember his 2000 primary campaign and other races like Rick Lazio's 2000 Senate race (which was run by the same people) know that "process" issues can grease a candidate's good press but they don't win elections; the big things do, the things that go to people's basic hopes, fears, needs and values. Let's hope Sen. McCain keeps that in mind in focusing his priorities. The remarks McCain made Tuesday night (more here) are, thematically, a good start.