The lessons of history are there for all of our benefit. John McCain would do his campaign well by studying what worked in previous elections, as well as what didn’t work.
We’ll look at three elections which I feel have significance.
The most obvious parallel is 1976. Gerald Ford had nothing to do with Watergate, but he pardoned Nixon. This, as well as the sin of having an “R” after his name was just enough to defeat him. Barely. Today has much the same political climate. McCain is attached to Bush the same way Ford was to Nixon. You think McCain is in deep trouble in the polls right now by being anywhere from 6 to 9 points behind? Ford was at one point 33 points behind a relatively unknown and inexperienced Jimmy Carter. Yet the election was decided by only 2 percentage points in Carter’s favor. Again, this was a year in which Democrats were heavily favored over the damaged Republican brand. Losing by only 2 percentage points actually said a lot about Gerald Ford and even more about the elctorate’s general distrust of obscure candidates such as Carter and Obama. The only stark difference between 1976 and 2008 on the surface would be a drastically changed electoral map. Obama wont be able to sweep the South as Carter did, while McCain is unlikely to win in California and Illinois as Ford did.
1988 is another year which deserves mention. Reagan wasn’t damaging to the ticket as Nixon was, but his shine was fading and many were looking to a new leadership. G.H.W. Bush, like Ford, Dole, and later, McCain, was largely seen as an older, likeable character, but who didn’t really inspire people. Dukakis on the other hand, was seen as a warm and intellectual newcomer. Bush actually trailed him by 17 points in the polls at one point. When he saw the need to shake up the race, Bush chose little known Senator Dan Quayle of Indiana. It was hoped that Quayle would appeal to women voters due to his good looks. The Quayle pick actually turned out to be a drag, but not enough to stop Bush from taking the momentum away from Dukakis and on to a landslide electoral victory (only 8 percentage points separated the two). Like Obama, Dukakis was known as a liberal, and this in the end is what defeated him. He did little to veer to the center, and Bush easily took advantage of this. Dukakis compares with Obama in that he was known as a liberal, but had the experience since was into his third term as governor.
The final election is one which McCain can learn how NOT to run a campaign. Clinton was a damaged candidate in 1996, and Republicans were understandably excited. The Republicans were on the surge with taking back both the House and Senate in 1994, and the Clinton Administration was mired in scandal. Despite early polls which put Dole and Clinton in a dead heat, Dole never got too close to Clinton in the numbers. Clinton led at one point by 24 points, and ended up by 9 percentage points, about the same as Bush/Dukakis 8 years previous. Dole was seen as old and cranky, with little personal appeal. He would often complain about the media bias towards Clinton, and repeat lines like “Where’s the outrage?” against the scandal plagued Clinton Administration. Clinton, meanwhile, shifted drastically to the right. He took up Republican issues such as lower taxes and welfare reform. This is what got him re-elected. McCain finds himself in much the same situation, but with an even more blatant media bias towards Obama. Obama’s inexperience, questionable contacts, and scant political record are completely ignored by most media outlets. We have seen a media backlash against the media by the McCain camp, who used to enjoy decent relations with reporters. McCain officials have ranted about the New York Times being in the tank for Obama. We all know this. Even some independent observers and Democrats know this. However, this strategy is going to fail as badly as Dole’s did. Going off on the media will give McCain more of the “cranky” label, and we are starting to see the Obama campaign’s efforts at labeling him as “erratic”. His media allies are also focusing on the “temperament” issue.
Obama has learned the lessons of Carter, Dukakis and Clinton. Carter succeeded on the mantle of “change” even though his resume was sparse. Dukakis failed due to being pinned as a liberal. Clinton succeeded by learning from the Dukakis mistakes, and adopted Republican mantras as his own. Accordingly, Obama has abandoned what little political record he has, campaigned on vaguely worded “change”, and mostly avoided the traditional Democratic talking points. For example, try to find anything about abortion or gun control in his stump speeches. He has molded himself as the new Clinton, even though everything points to the fact that he is so far to the left of this. If he gets into the White House, it will be precisely because of his shift to the right and of people buying it.
There are lessons to be learned from this. Though Carter had experience which was only slightly better than Obama’s, he got into the White House. McCain should not put all of his hopes in playing the “inexperience card”. This is a year where inexperience doesn’t matter as much as it normally does. How McCain wins is by exposing Obama as a Dukakis style liberal. He has been doing this, but Obama has countered with a Clinton style veer to the right. However, outside of rhetorical speeches and omissions of Democratic talking points, Obama hasn’t offered much of anything to prove his movement to the center-left. This is where McCain’s chances lie. In Jerome Corsi’s book, “The Obama Nation”, he correctly identifies this, ending with the conclusion that if McCain runs on issues rather than inexperience or whining about the media, he will defeat Obama. One could only hope that McCain picks up on this before it’s too late.