Senator McCain Survives His Weakest Debate Topic, Foreign Policy

The conventional wisdom going in and coming out of last night’s debate is that foreign policy would be Senator McCain’s strongest subject, his best chance to shine. I think that is wrong.

There are reasons why a point of view becomes conventional wisdom, and those reasons are obvious here. The polls show the public has more confidence in Senator McCain vis a vis Senator Obama when it comes to foreign policy issues, but prefers Obama on the economy. Senator McCain is himself clearly more animated on foreign policy issues, and seems to have a better grasp of such issues than he does the economy, where, as he infamously admitted early this year, he’s never quite gotten it. Meanwhile, Senator Obama is a foreign policy naif, with less foreign policy experience than McCain’s much maligned running mate, Governor Sarah Palin. In a dangerous world, would Americans trust Senator Obama as Commander in Chief?

This conventional analysis, however, misses several key points that give Senator McCain openings in the second and third debates, where economic policy is likely to be more dominant.

The first is the question of expectations and possibilities. We know the expectations game, and it’s a bit like a point spread in football. In last nights debate, the point spread had McCain favored by two touchdowns. Anything less scarcely counts as a win. I think McCain won the debate, but not by much. Obama seemed presidential enough; collected enough; smart enough; and he scored enough points to beat the spread. The flip side of the expectations game is the possibilities and threats game. A poor performance by Senator McCain last night might have doomed his candidacy. And Senator McCain has relatively little upside on national security. His views, and Obama’s, are relatively well known. What could McCain have gained last night? Short of some complete screw-up by Obama – always unlikely in these debates – the answer is very little.

This takes us to the other problem Senator McCain had last night – issues. Here’s the fact. Iraq and the war on terror are no longer at the top of people’s lists of important issues. Moreover, people simply want to be done with Iraq. The war remains deeply unpopular. Senator McCain can point out, a million times, that he supported the surge, and Senator Obama has set himself up for one of his weakest moments by his stubborn refusan to admit that the surge has worked, BUT… the fact remains that people just want to be done with Iraq. They may know that they can’t quite be done with it yet, but do they have to talk about it all the time? Being hawkish at a time of an unpopular war is not a recipe for electoral success. So the paradox – Senator McCain may appear to have an edge on foreign policy, but if this election is about foreign policy, Senator McCain is probably going to lose. To put it more simply, Senator McCain’s position on Iraq is a political loser. He may be courageous for sticking to it, he may be right. Politically, it’s a loser.

On the economy, all these considerations turn around. It is Obama’s alleged strong point and where he already holds an edge, so he has fewer upside possibilities. The spread is in McCain’s favor on this one – take McCain and the points.

Mostly, on the economy, the issues favor Senator McCain – if he can take advantage of it. Let’s start with an issue where Senator McCain has an exemplary track record – free trade. Senator Obama, in contrast, is the first openly protectionist, anti-trade nominee of a major party since Herbert Hoover. Protectionism has, over the years, proven to be a fool’s gold of politics – it never wins national elections.

Then we can move to spending, another McCain strong point. Senator Obama will try, as he did last night, to hook McCain to spending, noting that Senator McCain voted for all of George W. Bush’s big spending budgets. But here McCain’s record and image are so strong that Obama simply can’t win. Senator McCain needs to get past the constant repetition of “earmarks,” but if does that, he can nail Obama. He can go right down the list of programs – and of course their cost – that Obama is proposing. He can add to that every idiotic thing Speaker Pelosi and House Democratic Committee Chairman have favored. Don’t let Obama unlink himself from what his party’s congressional leaders have called for, but challenge him: are you going to veto the pet projects of your party’s congressional barons? If not, you’re going to spend when they come through congress.

That flows to taxes. McCain has to do better than last night – he can’t let Obama keep saying that he’ll cut taxes on 95% of the population. He needs to stay focused on the big picture – call it what you will, Obama intends to have the federal government tax more than it does now. One can just about count on one hand the number of economists who think raising taxes in tough economic times makes sense. That’s what Herbert Hoover did, and how did that work out?

Challenge Obama on socialized medical care. Make clear that Obama wants to fundamentally alter your relationship with your physician, and wants the government to determine how much health care you get and when you can get it. And beat Obama like a drum over card check, the system that will deprive workers of the vote over whether to unionize.

In summary, the bottom line is that Obama’s economic package only looks attractive when people aren’t paying attention. Americans do not want a socialized economy, and that is, in essence, what Obama is offering. Thus the current polls showing Obama is favored on the economy are misleading. Obama may be favored on the economy now, but his solutions – bigger government with more spending and taxation, socialized medicine, protectionism, and forced unionization – are not. They are political losers all.

In short, in this strange, topsy-turvey presidential election, Senator McCain’s apparent strength puts him on the wrong side of public opinion; his weak area is where, paradoxically, he is on the right side of public opinion. There is no better chance than the debates to demonstrate what an Obama presidency would really mean for the economic life of the nation.

Last night McCain battled to a draw, or perhaps a narrow win, on a subject that the public doesn’t want to discuss, and where McCain has nothing to offer but blood, sweat and toil – without the imminent and real fear of full scale invasion or the eloquence that made that made Winston Churchill’s speech one of the most famous in history.

When the debate shifts to domestic policy, Obama’s unpopular liberalism will stand out, and McCain will have a better chance to change the dynamics of this race.