Campaign strategy session

To appeal to moderates and independents in the next four months, Sens. Barack Obama and John McCain will seem closer on the issues than they really are. Here in Washington, the desire for change, which comes in the form of a Democratic presidential victory, could bode well for incumbent Gov. Chris Gregoire.
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To appeal to moderates and independents in the next four months, Sens. Barack Obama and John McCain will seem closer on the issues than they really are. Here in Washington, the desire for change, which comes in the form of a Democratic presidential victory, could bode well for incumbent Gov. Chris Gregoire.

Election day remains four months' distant, presidential and gubernatorial inaugurals more than six months away. Both at the state and national level, the campaigns are doing what they usually do at this stage — attempting to define for the electorate both their own and the opposition candidates' personas.

Up until this point, they mainly have tried to nail down backing from key single-interest and single-issue goups within their parties. Now, with the Labor Day general-election kickoff coming, they are reaching out for the independent and moderate support which will make the difference between winning and losing in November.

What are these guys really like?

If you talk with their peers in Washington, D.C. and in their political parties, you will get candid comments regarding Sens. Barack Obama and John McCain which remove their magic.

Democratic senators and members of Congress tend to admire Obama's political savvy and speechmaking ability. But, no matter what their public postures regarding their party's nominee, many express resentment that someone so young and new as Obama has risen to the fore over many of them who have labored longer and have stronger, more substantive backgrounds than he does. Both Republicans and Democrats in Congress will tell you that McCain is an unpleasant, often nasty colleague, quick to denounce anyone who resists his willfulness. He is not a nice guy. But they do admire his readiness to challenge "earmark" and other spending and, thus, to upset the established, spoils-system order.

This should not be surprising. In 1960, for example, Sen. John F. Kennedy was seen by many of his peers as a charming if spoiled, no-show legislator being pushed toward the presidency by an ambitious father. Senate Majority Leader Lyndon Johnson, who would become JFK's running mate, launched a pre-convention rumor campaign suggesting JFK had tenuous health (in fact, the rumors were true). Kennedy defeated Sen. Hubert Humphrey, his principal rival in primary contests, in part by running strongly to Humphrey's Right. His supporters alleged that Humphrey, disqualified medically, had been "a draft dodger" in World War II. Yet Kennedy was generally well liked personally by his colleagues. Vice President Richard Nixon, the Republican nominee, was generally disliked by peers in both political parties and even by President Dwight Eisenhower. He was properly seen by his peers as paranoid, hyper-ambitious, and unscrupulous. Yet he eventually would win two presidential elections. Neither Kennedy nor Nixon would have been nominated in a secret-ballot election in which their peers voted. Never mind. They struck the right chord among the wider electorate, which makes such selections.

We should get over the idea that presidential candidates possess extraordinary competence or qualities of character. By and large, they are just like the rest of us, except that circumstance and ambition have thrust them into the limelight at a particular time. (McCain, for example, would have been out of the Republican nominating race in 2007 had the "surge strategy" in Iraq not unexpectedly stabilized that country). Some are high-minded and able; others are small-bore neurotics.

For whatever it is worth, Obama should be seen at this stage as articulate, promising, and unformed, McCain as stubborn, mediocre, and fully formed. Obama is the more intelligent of the two but not of dazzling intellect. McCain, nearly a quarter-century older, is what he is. If elected, his presidency would be less flexible or inventive than Obama's would be — for good or ill.

Also for good or ill: Obama, if elected, would condition his actions with a second term in mind. McCain, because of his age, would do everything with a one-term time horizon.

Obama, McCain personas are emerging and merging

Both Obama and McCain entered their parties' nominating contests portraying themselves as independent and "different."

Obama certainly was different to the degree that he was young, new on the national scene, and biracial. He spoke of reaching across partisan and ideological lines to solve unsolved national problems. His "Yes We Can" slogan implied many things, including the idea that a minority candidate could be elected president as well as the notion that partisan gridlock could be broken in the capital. He entered the Democratic nominating campaign with the most liberal voting record in the U.S. Senate. Yet, running against Sen. Hillary Clinton, he initially presented himself as the less doctrinaire, liberal candidate — except on the Iraq War, where he positioned himself as a stronger anti-war candidate than Clinton, who had initially voted for the resolution authorizing military intervention.

When Clinton hung on in the nominating race — principally by appealing to women and middle-American Democrats — Obama found it necessary to adopt positions on international trade, tax policy, energy policy, and other issues which were closer to Clinton's than when his campaign began. They were not, however, positions likely to help him compete for independent and moderate Republican votes in a general election. Now he is trying to find his way back to middle ground, implying, for example, that he really is not protectionist on trade but may merely have overspoken in that direction during the nominating race. As the so-called "surge strategy" has appeared to stabilize the situation in Iraq, he has even implied he might as president back off his pledge to get U.S. troops out of that country on a short and definite timetable.

McCain also entered his party's nominating race as a maverick who had collaborated with Democrats on immigration reform, health-care reform, campaign-finance reform, and other issues. He portrayed himself as a critic of the Bush Iraq policy but as an all-out advocate of the surge strategy — i.e., in favor of applying greater military force, short term, and of remaining in Iraq "as long as it took" until U.S. troops could safely turn over security to Iraqi troops. Just as Obama, he began retreating from his original independence and embracing conservative orthodoxy, especially on economic and tax issues where he was perceived as not a Reaganomics believer.

On key issues, there remain big differences between Obama and McCain. They are the central differences between Democratic and Republican approaches to governance: That is, Obama would have government adopt a more intrusive and determining role on economic and domestic issues, in particular; McCain would leave more power in the hands of the private sector and of state and local governments. Yet both candidates will present themselves henceforth as moderate, reasonable, and not likely to do anything abrupt or upsetting. It would delight either man to be characterized as "a sensible pragmatist."

On foreign policy issues, Obama reflects his party's greater emphasis on multilateralism, international institutions, and identification with Third World problems, as well as its shunning of military options in general. McCain is a greater advocate of assertiveness on behalf of American interests and of diplomacy backed, in the end, with a willingness to use American force. On a case-by-case basis, however, they are likely to blur their differences in campaign debate. Obama will toughen up, pledge defense of Israel, warn against nuclear proliferation by Iran and North Korea, and propose a more flexible Iraq withdrawal timetable and flow of greater military resources to Afghanistan. He will, in short, position himself perhaps one-half-inch to the left of McCain. McCain will use softer language and position himself one-half inch to the right of Obama.

To the unititiated, this may seem supremely cynical. But it is nothing more than the usual quadrennial journey taken by presidential candidates of both major parties. To get nominated, candidates make their appeals to activist constituencies on the Left and Right. To contest a general election, they wear moderate clothing in order to appeal to independent and crossover voters. In other words, they do what they feel they must do at each stage of the process.

Drawing the pictures

As noted above, both Obama and McCain are drawing pictures of themselves for the electorate. They also are drawing pictures of their opponents which they wish the electorate to accept.

Obama cannot complete a sentence without implying that McCain and Bush, as McCain and Bush domestic and foreign policies, are identical. McCain, for his part, would have voters believe that Obama is nothing more or less than a big-government, tax-and-spend liberal who, on national security policy, is inexperienced and not to be trusted.

If you think picture-drawing does not work, consider the fact that for 30 years Democrats associated all Republican national candidates with the failed President Herbert Hoover. The mention of Hoover's name brought boos at any Democratic political event. Republicans rally their troops by derisive references to President Jimmy Carter. They drew quite successful pictures of losing Democratic nominees in 1972, 1980, 1984, 1988, 2000, and 2004 according to Republican, rather than Democratic, terms of reference. (Remember Mike Dukakis and the famous "Willie Horton" commercials in 1988 and the "Swift Boat" commercials in 2004 which wounded John Kerry?).

Here in Washington state, the campaigns of Gov. Chris Gregoire and former state Sen. Dino Rossi are running commercials at this moment attempting to define their opponents in quite negative ways. Correspondingly, positive commercials have thus far been absent.

Challengers normally ask voters to vote "no" on an incumbency, as Rossi is suggesting they do regarding Gregoire's, but Gregoire's campaign at this point is asking voters as well to vote "no" on Rossi.

The Gregoire-Rossi media campaigns are the most mutually negative I can recall at this juncture.

Which tide will engulf the other?

Voters clearly want change. They are fed up with the state of the economy and fatigued by our involvement in Iraq. Yet this apparent Obama advantage could fade if some international crisis or terrorist episode occurred before election day. This could turn voters toward the older, more seasoned McCain.

At the state level, a desire for change should favor Rossi. Yet financial/economic conditions here are superior to those in most other states. Washington is now a Democratic state. The Obama candidacy at the top of the Democratic ballot should bring strength to Gregoire's candidacy as well. If Gregoire is successful in casting enough doubt on Rossi, she could win reelection handily.

Neither the presidential nor gubernatorial election is a sure thing at this stage. But we should at least be aware of what the candidates are doing right now and why they are doing it.


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About the Authors & Contributors

Ted Van Dyk

Ted Van Dyk

Ted Van Dyk has been active in national policy and politics since 1961, serving in the White House and State Department and as policy director of several Democratic presidential campaigns. He is author of Heroes, Hacks and Fools and numerous essays in national publications. You can reach him in care of