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Preview: RealClearPolitics - Articles - Peter Wehner

RealClearPolitics - Articles - Peter Wehner

Last Build Date: Tue, 19 Feb 2008 09:30:00 -0600

Copyright: Copyright 2008

How McCain Should Take On Obama

Tue, 19 Feb 2008 09:30:00 -0600

At the same time, Obama has given substantive policy speeches -- and in debates and interviews he is perfectly capable of laying out his ideas. He is obviously conversant on issues like health care and many others. For conservatives to criticize Obama for his rhetorical vacuousness and make fun of the rock-star response he elicits in voters will, I think, ultimately prove ineffective. It's worth remembering how vague and airy John F. Kennedy's invocation of the New Frontier was during the 1960 campaign. The area where Obama is vulnerable is his record, as brief as it is, and his stated positions. Senator Obama is a completely orthodox liberal -- the most liberal person in the Senate in 2007, according to National Journal -- in a nation that is not. Why hasn't this fact hurt Obama so far? Because his two main opponents in the Democratic race, Hillary Clinton and John Edwards, haven't advertised Obama's liberalism. They are essentially as liberal as Obama is, so that political arrow has been removed from their quiver. Hillary Clinton has therefore been forced to criticize Obama for his lack of experience -- even though her own experience is quite thin and her past forays into policy have been disastrous (her mishandled health care plan helped the GOP win 52 House seats in 1994 and gave them control of the House for the first time in four decades). When you analyze what her much-hyped "35 years of experience" actually involves -- 20 of those years Mrs. Clinton was first lady, first of Arkansas and then of America -- one is struck by how weak her claim is that she would be "ready on day one." The dirty little secret is that Hillary Clinton is a mediocre-to-average candidate with little governing experience; she is where she is mostly because of the achievements of her husband. Senator McCain's line of attack against Senator Obama, should Obama become the Democratic nominee, ought to be on Obama's liberal stands. As best as I can ascertain, apart from calling for merit pay for teachers, Obama is a conventional liberal on every significant national issue. Senator McCain needs to focus like a laser beam on that fact. I should add an important caveat: invoking the liberal label is not enough. Especially against Obama -- who is skilled, dexterous, and projects a sense of being non-ideological -- much more will be necessary. Senator McCain needs to make deep, sustained arguments on behalf of liberty, limited government, constitutionalism, the family, and American strength and military power (from prosecuting the Iraq war to a successful conclusion to effective terrorist surveillance policies) in confronting militant Islam. He then needs to lay out a robust governing agenda based on those governing principles. And he needs to present himself as a reformer of our institutions, which is something that does come easily to McCain. Making the case against Obama's liberalism will bring howls of protest from reporters and columnists who once held McCain up as a courageous "maverick" and who took particular delight when he antagonized conservatives. John McCain's days as the mainstream media's favorite Republican are about to end. One can already anticipate the avalanche of columns denouncing McCain as a flip-flopping, unprincipled panderer. The mainstream media will insist that using the liberal label is so 1980s. Such name-calling, we will be told, is anachronistic, "old and tired," simple-minded, and a sign of desperation. It may have worked against Michael Dukakis in 1988, they will argue, but we are a better and wiser nation now. McCain should reject such counsel. If Obama should win the Democratic nomination, John McCain should go straight at his record -- with precision, without rancor, and relentlessly. John McCain will not win a personality contest against Barack Obama; no political figure in America could. McCain will have to base his campaign on a set of creative, forward-looking ideas that meet the challenges of our time. He will have to make this a race about ideas and about ideology. It may not work; it wi[...]

Riding the Obama Wave

Fri, 14 Dec 2007 00:41:59 -0600

At the outset of the campaign, Obama neutralized what were thought to be the two great advantages of Hillary Clinton: fundraising and organization. Once Obama had achieved a level playing field there, the race would be decided on who is the better candidate. And in my estimation, it's not a close call: Obama is a far more impressive (even if more inexperienced) political talent.

Barack Obama's standing in the race is based largely on what he's done; Hillary Clinton's standing in the race is based largely on what her husband did.

Hillary Clinton is an average candidate. She is more disciplined than her husband - but then, who is not? She does not possess any of his charm or "people skills." While she has a good (not great) command of the issues, she comes across as highly scripted, cold, calculating, and sometimes shrill. She has very little connection with audiences. Until the last few weeks she went more or less unchallenged by her opponents, which created the false impression that she was running a brilliant campaign.

The support for Hillary has always struck me as largely duty-bound; it is as if some Democrats believed they owed her their vote for past services, for the humiliation her husband put her through and because (in their mind) she was the object of attacks by the "vast right-wing conspiracy." But that is not enough to sustain a candidacy - and for Hillary, the applause from Democrats always seems to be louder when she'd introduced then when she'd done speaking.

Beyond that is Clinton Fatigue, which exists even among some Democrats. It is the sense people have that they don't want to return to the psychodrama of the Clinton years, the turbulence of their personal lives, and the Clinton "war room" mentality. The ease with which they seek out and destroy political opponents and those whom they believe stand in the way of their ambitions - whether they are women Bill Clinton has had affairs with or independent counsels or other candidates - is wearying (to say nothing of deeply troubling and Nixonian).

Sidney Blumenthal and his conspiracy brand of politics and Paul Begala and his scorched-earth rhetoric seem so yesterday.

The support for Obama, on the other hand, is more spontaneous, genuine, and intense. His call to turn the page on the politics of the past has resonance, in part because he seems to fit the message so well. Obama comes across as likeable, civil, grounded, and not reflexively partisan (even though he might well be). He has undeniable star power. And if he wins early, the pieces are in place for him to keep winning.

The main problem with Obama is that he is so conventionally liberal, which may not hurt him in the Democratic primaries but would cost him in a general election. His foreign policy experience is extremely thin - and on the major issue confronting America, the war against militant Islam, he is manifestly weak. On virtually every front in the war against jihadism, he would pull back. At the end of the day, the acid test in a general election is where a candidate stands on the issues - and Obama's liberalism will eventually be Obama's weakness. But that would matter more in the summer of '08 than it does in the winter of '07.

It's still too early to draw any definitive conclusions about this race. There are ebbs and flows to politics, especially in this highly fluid political year, and a huge amount can (and probably will) happen between now and February 5. What seems inevitable one day seems improbable the next. In addition, the Clinton machine is efficient and ruthless; Barack Obama has never encountered anything like it. But like Ali against Foreman, Obama seems to me to have the right style in this match-up.

Right now, Obama is riding a wave that I don't think will recede.