Oh, What a Lucky Man is Johnny McCain
By Jerome Grossman
When this presidential campaign began many months ago, the conventional wisdom was that any Democratic candidate could defeat any Republican candidate. The basis for that generalization was that President Bush's failures in Iraq, Katrina and the economy had weakened the GOP hold on the presidency. The president's approval rating was about 30% on a good day. The party and the candidates were far behind the Democrats in fundraising. The grassroots were discouraged, the independents were looking for change, and the Democrats were full of enthusiasm and energy, enjoying their electoral victories in the 2006 election that gave them control of the U.S. Senate and the House of Representatives.
Now, seven months before the November election, the political conditions have not changed, the economy is in even worse shape, but, strangely enough, Senator John McCain has wrapped up the GOP nomination and is actually competitive with his Democratic rivals. McCain has been mighty lucky. He faced a weak field of GOP rivals for the nomination and saw them fade and then drop out for a variety of reasons. As the leading hawk in the field, he benefited from the limited success of the military surge in Iraq. And he was fortunate that the story about his relationship with the female lobbyist was printed after McCain won close contests with Mitt Romney in New Hampshire and Florida. If the New York Times had broken the story earlier, McCain would have been out of the race, and the paper had been sitting on the details for months.
Now, McCain is enjoying another big break as Barack Obama and Hillary Clinton trade attacks giving McCain a free ride, at least temporarily. As a result, the presumptive Republican nominee has crept ahead of both in national polls. While the battling Democrats are defining each other negatively, McCain is sailing along serenely, trying to establish his credentials on foreign and domestic policy.
McCain has a lot of work to do to reach the White House. He must overcome his negative of age in a society that worships youth: he will be 72 years old soon, and sometimes looks like 90. His acknowledged experience lies in military affairs but he must prove his competence in handling the ailing economy. He must find a way to win the rust belt states Ohio, Michigan and Pennsylvania, angry about NAFTA by appealing to workers and Roman Catholics. Organizationally, McCain needs to maintain his long-standing appeal to independent voters while holding together the many opposing factions in the Republican Party. At the same time, McCain needs to demonstrate that his administration will be different from the Bush administrations. Above all, he must keep his focus on his strengths: support for the military and the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan and chasing terrorists all over the world. And, of course, he will try to convince the voters that Obama (or Clinton) is too inexperienced for leadership in time of war.
In the inevitable presidential debates this autumn, Obama and McCain will be a study in dramatic contrast, not seen since the smooth John F. Kennedy wiped out the sweating Richard Nixon on television in 1960. Obama - tall, athletic, handsome, with a gift for oratory and improvisation. McCain - short, dumpy, showing his age and infirmity, unsmiling and with a short temper. If I were McCain, I might not show up.
These long-term challenges are very difficult in the current political environment. Voters remain weary of the Iraq war, worried about the economy and disenchanted with the lame duck Republican president. All of the energy is on the Democratic side, but McCain is hanging in there, competitive in the polls, playing out a weak hand that is capable of an upset. And above all, relying on his luck that has brought him to the very edge of unlimited power.