The McSenator Killing His Campaign

Patrick Ruffini made the point that McCain has lost steam because stylistically he’s behaved like a Senator rather than a President.

I’d argue that McCain is hurting himself right now because his approach to the bail out issue is much more like a Senator in the minority party responding to a big issue rather than a President.

The President, when the country is in crisis, is more likely to be the one to make the first proposal to get the ball rolling. (example: The PATRIOT Act after 9/11.) The congress works off the proposal. In some rare cases, they may reject it. They’ll certainly amend it, but on huge issues, the President makes the first move.

What Senator McCain did when he laid out changes he’d like to see is play the part of the master legislator, amending what the President proposed. It’s a move of a seasoned legislator, but it’s not the appropriate action of a President. The problem with this is that: 1) it wasn’t bold, 2) it tied him to the current administration, 3) it cast doubts on him as a reformer.

Now, there have been rumors on some blogs that the bailout II contains special earmarks, which would contradict McCain’s rhetoric on earmarks, but as Ryan Ellis of Americans for Tax Reform points out, there are no true earmarks in the bill, only tax breaks. I’d say special interest tax breaks, but it’s not the same thing as the earmarks McCain has been railing against.

However, what hurts more is this statement on ABC this weekend regarding a continuing :

“You put in the, you put in the good deals, and then you put in the pork, as well…But I may have voted for it if, I probably would have ended up voting for it, but I decry a system where individual members are, are faced with taking all this unacceptable, outrageous stuff that has contributed to the largest growth in spending since the Great Society.”

McCain’s being a pragmatic legislator. The problem? That’s not the kind of President he promised to be when he accepted the nomination:

I’ve fought the big spenders in both parties, who waste your money on things you neither need nor want, and the first big-spending pork-barrel earmark bill that comes across my desk, I will veto it. I will make them famous, and you will know their names. You will knowtheir names.

So basically, the same bill he probably would have voted for as a Senator, he would veto as President? It represents an incongruity to the casual voter. Heck, it presents an incongruity to me and I’m voting for the guy. And by the way, this statement came after he spent all last week talking about the problem of earmarks, totally missing the economic message.

McCain had the lead in the polls for two weeks after the convention, there was a sense of confidence that he would represent a change with 80% feeling the country was on the wrong track. What’s happened?

When faced with a crisis, McCain did not act decisively in a way that was any different from the Bush Administration. It could be argued that neither did Obama. I would agree. Here’s the thing: Obama doesn’t have to. The overwhelming weight of historical precedent favors a victory by Obama. He could spout nothing but platitudes from now until the election and he’s still favored to win. McCain has less room for errors and the way the bail out was handled was an error that has cast doubt on the whole appeal of his campaign. How do you recover from this? I honestly don’t know.

Of course, it should be said, if he has torpedoed his campaign, he did it with the most honorable of motives and actions. He did his job as a Senator as he understood it.

What the McCain situation points to is the problem with picking seasoned Senators. They’re tied into the legislative process. The job of a Senator is to fine tune ideas, work to reach compromises that can get 60 votes, negotiate, and be incredibly pragmatic.

The job of a President is to lay out a broad vision, bold ideas, and then fight for them in Congress, using the bully pulpit to go to the American people to make your case. McCain’s general policy portfolio suffers from a case of Senatitis with policy proposals that are generally either timid or that few voters care about.

Obama is immune from the effects of Senatitis for two reasons. First, history naturally gives his party an edge and having McCain as an opponent weakens some of the issues that go with being in the Senate. More fundamentally, Obama’s lack of on-the-job experience has helped him. With only about 2 years of fully engaged senate service, Obama hasn’t become grounded in the pragmatic nature of Senate politics, thus allowing him to throw out ideas and concepts that sound nice when you’re talking about them, but are far easier said than done.

Obama is ultimately where he’s at today, because while he’s never been a chief executive, he’s never been a great legislator either. He’s never become part of the Washington, DC sausage factory. John McCain is one of the best workers in the sausage factory.

McCain’s problem? We hate the sausage factory.

How does he turn this around? The McCain campaign has picked up that voters want change. To put it in legislative parlance, they don’t merely want a technical correction amendment, they want an amendment in the form of a substitute. Voters need to have the idea that McCain will move the country in the right direction, and there’s going to be a departure from the Bush years.

McCain’s proposals so far aren’t cutting it. He’s wasted good campaign money running multiple ads on stem cell research, an issue that doesn’t move masses of voters, ticks off many pro-lifers, and that he and Obama basically agree on.

Where he needs to go is to focus on drilling and energy, a message that was a winning one for Republicans, that has been put on the back burner. And Senator McCain’s spending freeze proposal could also be sold. He also has got to really speak to the situation of middle class Americans. Rather than speaking to Americans in difficult situations, showing empathy, and instilling confidence in the American people, McCain has been talking like a Washington insider. If he wants to win, this has got to change.