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February 20, 2008

Brendan Simms on how McCain can beat Obama: reaching out to "McCain Democrats" and ignoring the conservative base

Posted by Brendan Simms

Brendan Simms - Reader in the History of International Relations at the Centre of International Studies at the University of Cambridge and co-President of the Henry Jackson Society - argues that McCain can beat Obama by reaching out to "McCain Democrats". If McCain tries to appeal to the conservative base he will lose. The views expressed here are those of Brendan Simms, not those of the Social Affairs Unit, its Trustees, Advisors or Director.

A spectre is haunting the Republican establishment: the annihilation of their presidential hopeful in 1996.

That year Bob Dole faltered in early primaries, but enjoyed favourable national polls. The long-serving Kansas Senator, and Second World War veteran was duly anointed by the party. He fought a lacklustre campaign, showed his seventy-three years terribly not least by falling off the platform at a rally, and went on to be thrashed in the election by the youthful incumbent Bill Clinton.

There are enough parallels between him and the man who is virtually certain to take on the Democrats in November to make senior Republicans nervous. The nightmare scenario for them is that Obama will rally enough blacks to win some southern states, and maintain a clear lead among younger voters of all backgrounds, while McCain fails to mobilise the alienated conservative base in his own party.

These Republicans know that any overly negative campaign will backfire: people do not like having their illusions punctured. They also sense that the Obama bubble will burst - it has to - but they fear that it will not happen before November.

In these circumstances, McCain would be very ill-advised to play it safe. He must resist the temptation to shore up Conservative support, by soft-soaping the National Rifle Association, and flannelling on taxes. After eight years of Bush, Republican voters are apathetic- they turned out in much lower numbers during the primaries - and any attempt by McCain to play to fundamentalist conservatives will strike them as insincere, and damage his credibility among moderates and independents.

The very worst thing he could do, therefore, would be to choose Mike Huckabee or another conservative southerner in search of a "balanced ticket". Given McCain's age, putting Huckabee within a heartbeat of the presidency would be the kiss of death.

Instead, McCain should fight the campaign according to his own deepest instincts, some of which are conservative and others radical. Whenever McCain has stumbled, it is because he equivocated, such as over gay marriage in Iowa, not because he was controversial.

So McCain should maintain his principled opposition to abortion, which will rally evangelicals, and shouldn't antagonise very many people who would not vote Democrat anyway. He should maintain his relatively liberal stance on immigration, which appeals to moderates and Hispanics, and take the hit among some conservative voters.

He should emphasise his innovative energy policies and his record as a conservationist, accepting that will - and has already - cost him important campaign donations. McCain should not be afraid to champion the state as the protector of the weak against the strong, stressing campaign finance reform, his scourging of Big Tobacco and other business interests.

On the other hand, he should be honest with voters in rust-belt states that most of their jobs are not going to come back, and offer them an alternative vision of growth. Unlike Romney, who more or less promised to buy Michigan in the primaries, or the Democrats, McCain should offer those hit by the recession not handouts, but the promise that by taking on corporate interests in health and the economy, he will chart another path to a more equal society.

Both Democrat contenders represent identity politics, Obama even more so than Clinton. A victory for either in November would "prove" that a black man or a white woman can "make it" in American politics. McCain should turn that formula to his advantage: he should stress that he is going "beyond identity politics". He should capitalise on his very lack of regional, race or other rootedness. He is respected as a character, an American hero and a man of principle, not as the vehicle of the aspirations of any particular group.

No Democrat or independent will feel they are choosing McCain over Obama or Hillary for the wrong reasons (even if they are). In this context, the choice of running mate takes on a new significance. A token black, say Colin Powell, would not persuade many African-Americans (and in his case there is far too much Bush-era baggage anyway). A woman, say Susan Collins, would not win many additional female voters.

McCain should therefore choose a man or a woman with whom he is comfortable, who is genial enough to offset his acerbity, and credible as a successor. Charlie Crist, the immensely popular, youngish and by no means overly conservative governor of Florida, whose endorsement swung the state behind McCain, might work.

Above all, McCain should lead on his strongest suit: national security. He must stress not his military service in Vietnam as such (this will speak for itself), but his qualifications as commander in chief in a time of great national crisis.

Herein lies the crucial difference to 1996, when a weaker Republican faced a Democrat incumbent who was even more persuasive than Obama; and when America was very much at peace with the world (though not with itself). By articulating a vision of domestic fair play and national greatness in the world akin to that of his hero Theodore Roosevelt, McCain will provide the ideological glue to replace the bogus "compassionate conservatism" of the Bush-era. He will bring to an end the American cultural civil war, the better to smite here enemies and succour her friends abroad.

The key to all this will be the "McCain Democrats". Analysis conducted by the Democrat strategists Jimmy Carville and Stan Greenberg before the 2004 election showed a "Third Party" under McCain taking more Democrat than Republican votes. Like the "Reagan Democrats" of yesteryear, these men and women (mostly the former) are in no illusion that their hero can pull an economic rabbit out of the hat.

What they prize more than anything is leadership: and McCain is even more qualified to offer it than the "Gipper" ever was. In this way McCain will win more on the roundabouts with centrist democrats and independents than he loses on the swings with conservative die-hards (some of whom have already signalled that they will never vote for him anyway).

McCain could win in some surprising places and turn parts of the north and north-east red. Look out for those states where Hillary is strong: in Ohio for example, McCain is already narrowly ahead of Obama. In short, McCain has the opportunity to re-orient the Republican party for a generation, and craft a new coalition which will see it to victory this year, in 2012 and beyond.

The author thanks Miss Leigh Rawlins for research undertaken in support of this article.

Dr Brendan Simms is Reader in the History of International Relations at the Centre of International Studies at the University of Cambridge and co-President of the Henry Jackson Society.

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