Pete Wehner on the Challenge of Obama

Plenty of late-breaking thoughts on the first debate around the sphere today, including my own minor submissions. But the one that’s worth your time to read is Pete Wehner’s thought process on the overall challenges the McCain campaign faces – here’s his third point, but you should read it all over at Commentary:

What helps a campaign immeasurably is when the charge it makes seems to fit the person against whom the charge is being made. So, for example, the Bush strategy in 2004 to make John Kerry appear to be a flip-flopper and haughty was aided by the fact that it played to a pre-existing (and largely accurate) view of Kerry.

The difficulty Senator Obama presents is that his demeanor and countenance seem to act as a shield against the charge that he is, in terms of his policies and political philosophy, quite liberal and on the extreme end of the political spectrum. Senator Obama’s voting record certainly shows that to be the case. But the way he carries himself — combined with his post-primary, head-snapping shifts in policy — are designed to make Obama appear as a centrist. I don’t for a moment believe he is; Obama’s political career, taken in its totality, makes him the most liberal presidential candidate since George McGovern. But Obama has shown himself to be a nimble candidate, against whom it is difficult to land clean blows.

In addition, Obama came across in the debate as mostly agreeable, repeatedly saying “I agree with John” on this or that. I think that was an effective tactic; it gave Obama the patina of being bipartisan and a man ever in search of common ground. In fact, Obama has complied, in the words of Joshua Muravchik, “one of the most partisan of all voting records.” But once again, his style and manner send a different signal.

Potentially, the most lethal political charge against Obama is that he is a deeply liberal/ideological figure who has associated with radical individuals in order to advance his political career. The question is whether Obama’s countenance and personal style make those charges seem far-fetched; or whether the McCain campaign can convince voters that Obama’s appeal is at its core fraudulent and his new-found centrism a mirage.

I have some sympathy with the task faced by Team McCain; telling a campaign what needs to be done is much easier than actually carrying it out. That’s why it would be useful for more commentators to actually have had some experience in governing and political campaigns, which tend to be more complicated and difficult than pontificating.