I really think McCain is unwise to follow Clinton's strategy against Obama. It increasingly looks as if he'll argue that he has more experience and more readiness. Those themes will only reinforce the narrative of age and youth, a narrative that helps Obama. In my view, McCain can only win this campaign if he adopts Obama's message. McCain has to become the change candidate.
He needs to offer a radical program to bring the war in Iraq to a close, foment energy innovation, offer a market-driven healthcare plan that expands choice and access, simplify taxes, obliterate pork, secure the border and reform entitlements.
On the war, he can reiterate that he brought change once before to Iraq and can bring it again, by orchestrating a withdrawal that is as careful (to paraphrase Obama) as the invasion was careless. But he needs to broaden that message, adding diplomacy to his theme. He should embark on a world tour of allies in the spring, reassuring Americans and the world that he will reverse America's not-so-glorious isolation. He can credibly insist that he will change America's interrogation and detention policies, and restore America's moral standing. He should waste no time in meeting with other world leaders on the subject of climate change.
Obama's weakness is on his left-wing economics. But McCain shouldn't attack too aggressively there either. He should rather propose: a broadside on pork barrel spending, a commitment to fiscal retrenchment, a reform of entitlements, a pledge to ratchet back the massive expansion of government under the Bush Republicans. At some point, McCain should also risk a fight with some of the uglier elements of the far right. The country is sick of the screeds and hate of figures like Ann Coulter. A Republican version of Clinton's famous Sistah Souljah moment, when Clinton publicly took on an African-American rapper for violent anti-police rhetoric, would keep the campaign fresh and signal a willingness to shake things up.
McCain has two tendencies: to react with prickly intransigence to criticism and to inspire others with the record of his own public service. Many of his fellow Republicans will urge him to savage Obama on his youth, inexperience and liberalism, and Obama might well provoke an explosion at some point. If that is the strategy, McCain will fail. But if he can master his own volatile temperament and out-Obama Obama on the change theme, he stands a real chance.
This is a change election. As the economy sours even further, it will become even more so. Running as the whiter, older, more experienced candidate is a recipe for failure. And McCain has the capacity to present himself as a change agent - starting with the GOP.
But beating Obama won't be easy. Just ask Hillary.
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