Five weeks after Barack Obama clinched the Democratic nomination, the parameters of the 2008 presidential contest have been established. The battle will be waged in roughly 33 states and cost more than a billion dollars. The central issues will be gas prices, the economy, and Iraq. And, despite John McCain’s ineptness as a candidate, the race will be disturbingly close.
Over the past 30 days, Obama has consistently led McCain by an average of five points in tracking polls: Obama hasn’t garnered more than 50 percent of the vote and McCain hasn’t topped 46. During this same period, McCain’s campaign has continuously made mistakes. Their blunders have varied in severity from McCain and his advisors suggesting that America’s financial woes are psychological—that we’ve become a nation of “whiners”—to the Arizona senator confusing Shiites with Sunnis. The only period when McCain avoided gaffes was during his ill-advised trip to Colombia and Mexico when he dropped out of sight.
Since he won the Republican nomination in March, McCain’s campaign has raised less money than Obama. McCain’s candidacy has had no unifying focus other than his sacrifice as a Vietnam-era POW. Moreover, a recent poll found registered Republicans have less enthusiasm for their nominee than Democrats do for Obama. Considering all these factors, why is the race so close?
There are two possible explanations. One is that the Obama campaign suffers from its own ineptness. Certainly they have yet to capitalize on McCain’s inherent weaknesses. When Phil Gramm, McCain’s principal financial adviser, described Americans as “whiners” because of their complaints about the economy, Obama referred to this in one speech and then let it drop; many observers felt the Illinois senator should have hammered McCain with the whiner remark, as well as his contention that our current financial woes are psychological. Since the Iowa primary, pundits have frequently complained that Obama lacks the killer instinct because he often fails to take advantage of his opponents’ gaffes—a characteristic that led New York Times columnist Maureen Dowd to label him “Obambi.”
Of course, Obama may appear lackadaisical because his advisers want him to bash McCain later, during the presidential debates, when more Americans are paying attention to the election. Or Obama may be waiting until he selects a vice-presidential running mate and give him or her the task of attacking the Arizona senator. Or Obama may reason that if he stays positive, while his opponent descends into churlishness, voters will inevitably reject McCain. Whatever the thinking of the Obama campaign may be, it would be a disastrous mistake to assume that because of his inept campaign McCain is going to disappear. Or that he is any less ruthless an opponent than was George Bush.
What we know about the Arizona senator should make every Obama supporter nervous. John McCain is the prototypical “good old boy.” That’s good old white boy. He has positioned himself to represent both the Republican mainstream and its racist fringe. With his attacks on Obama’s character, McCain implies the Illinois senator doesn’t have “the right stuff” while McCain does because he’s sacrificed for his country—and has white skin.
Despite his reputation as a “maverick” and “straight talker,” John McCain fits the mold of Bush-era Republicans willing to say and do anything to win. Over the last eight years he’s changed his position frequently. While it’s easy to dismiss many of his flip-flops as a calculated move to the right, some of his recent blunders had a more distressing flavor, suggesting McCain’s memory has failed to the extent he can no longer be trusted to speak extemporaneously—he’s liable to say anything.
Nonetheless, McCain and Bush share more than similar attitudes about oil, the economy, and Iraq; they now have the same political philosophy. In 2000, it was George Bush who fooled the press and the nation by promising to be “a uniter not a divider,” an environmentalist, and America’s first MBA president who would restore dignity and honor to the White House. Now it’s McCain who’s repackaging himself as conciliator, environmentalist, and reformer; McCain who’s trying to dupe Americans.
The Arizona senator has gotten away with so many campaign mistakes and outright lies because he has a long history of cultivating the mainstream media. Correspondents covering his campaign behave like groveling sycophants and typically ignore McCain gaffes and position changes. Many political writers are fans of big John and consistently give him the benefit of the doubt. On a 2006 episode of Hardball, host Chris Matthews explained why journalists constantly give McCain a break, “because he served in Vietnam, and a lot of us didn’t.”
Despite his maladroit campaign and his association with an unpopular president, John McCain remains a formidable candidate. By retooling himself as a staunch conservative he’s retained the core of the Republican Party. By cleverly coded messages he’s picked up the racist vote. By manufacturing an image as a “maverick” and “reformer,” he’s attracted independents. And, he’s seduced key members of the mainstream media. McCain isn’t going away. He could win.
Bob Burnett is a Berkeley writer. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.