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John McCain’s Act III

A month and a day away from the election, John McCain’s task, never easy, is more daunting than ever.

The financial crisis that overwhelmed us a few weeks ago has set in motion economic problems that will be with us for some time to come. It also turned out to be the best possible political gift for the Obama campaign. It has dominated the news for weeks now, deepened the public’s mistrust of Republicans (which was beginning to abate), arrested and reversed the momentum the McCain campaign had skillfully achieved, and shifted the election onto terrain that most favors Obama.

The financial meltdown was bound to hurt Republicans no matter what; the way McCain and members of the GOP handled it has made things worse. And so we are essentially where we were several months ago, with Obama in possession of a sizable lead. The difference now is that there are less than 30 days left before the votes are cast, the number of states McCain has a realistic chance of picking off (like Michigan, Wisconsin, Minnesota, and New Hampshire) are dwindling by the day, some states that should be safe McCain states (like Florida, North Carolina, and even Indiana) are in play, and states McCain has to have–like Ohio and Virginia–are up for grabs.

It’s true enough that the pendulum of public opinion has swung widely in the last several seven weeks, moving from an Obama lead, to a slight McCain lead, and back again. It’s also true that Obama is still a question mark in many people’s minds. But a strong wind is now at Obama’s back. And the issue that will almost surely dominate the public mind between now and the election, the economy, plays to Obama’s strength and McCain’s weakness.

What this means is that Senator McCain now has to turn in two superb debate performances. He has no margin for error on any front. And he has to hope for either a dramatic external event to alter the trajectory of the race, or a significant slip up by the well-disciplined Obama campaign. That’s a lot to hope for in the next four weeks.

This past weekend has made it clear that Obama’s unremittingly liberal voting record, as well as some of his past associations (weirdly excluding the Reverend Jeremiah Wright, which is the association that deeply troubled a lot of us), will be an issue during what I have called Act III of the McCain campaign.

What remains to be seen is whether this line of criticism will succeed given the current environment. If so, the case McCain makes needs to be powerful and precise, accurate and believable. He must convince a large segment of the public that his argument is not backward-looking but is instead intensely practical. To be more specific, McCain need to demonstrate to voters why Obama’s past record and associations will shape, in important and harmful ways, how Obama would govern as president. To invoke a line used by Senator Biden during last Thursday’s debate, McCain needs to explain why “past is prologue.”

There are possible pitfalls for Senator McCain to be sure. He needs to be careful not to come across looking like Bob “Where’s the outrage?” Dole near the end of the 1996 campaign. There will be a relentless effort by Democrats, and many political commentators, to portray McCain as petty, desperate, and small-minded. And with the American economy adrift and heading toward a recession, it will be a challenge not to make his criticisms appear to be out of sync with the main issue on people’s mind. Nor is it as if McCain will be aiming his fire against a passive figure; Obama and his campaign will fight back and make a series of counter-attacks.

The thing that McCain has in his favor is that Obama is in fact deeply liberal. That judgment is beyond dispute, at least if voting records have any relevance. In a center-right nation, that is a problem. The task for McCain has always been to do more than shout “liberal, liberal, liberal” in a crowded political theater; he has to show that Obama’s liberalism, especially combined with a Pelosi-and-Reid led Congress, will have real world consequences. He has to demonstrate, in a way that’s accessible and relevant, why one’s political philosophy serves as a reliable guide to one’s political actions.

Barack Obama will do what he has done from the outset: deny the charge and insist that such labels are passé, a political artifact from 1988, a page from the GOP’s book of “old politics.” In fact, in this election, as in all elections, ideas and political ideology ought to matter. Whether John McCain – a man who over the years has prided himself on being non-ideological, a “maverick,” and a deal-maker – can make that case at all, let alone in the current environment, is very much of an open question. But he really has no other choice than to try, starting tomorrow night in Nashville.



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