With one week or so left in what's been an exhausting roller coaster of a presidential campaign, is there anything left to be said or done by the candidates? Barack Obama's embarked on what he's calling his closing argument speech, and John McCain's hoping to squeeze one last hail mary out of more than a year of them.
If Obama wins, the McCain campaign will be scrutinized for its failures by pundits, liberals and especially conservatives who feel he should have done somethign more, or less, or different. McCain, like every candidate in the Democratic primaries, has made "defining Obama" one of the cornerstones of his campaign. Consequently, the Illinois Senator has been defined as inexperienced, dangerous, reckless, exotic, extremist, elitist, out of touch, duplicitous, anti-American, and a socialist, among other things.
While I commend the McCain campaign for a number of implausible successes over the course of the year, and some memorable strategic maneuvers in an election that would have been hard for any Republican to win, I offer that the campaign's been remiss in failing to highlight Barack Obama's frightening penchant for voting "present." If he pulls out a win, McCain's inability to frame this issue effectively will rightly come back to haunt him.
While in the Fox Strategy Room this week, I had a conversation with former New York Governor George Pataki about Obama's "present" vote, something he's done 129 times in eight years in the Illinois Senate. I asked if he thought that rather than positioning Obama as an extremist or a radical, though he may be, McCain should have made more of the fact that Obama's clung so strongly to the safe middle, so many times. In my mind, the present vote reveals Obama to be insecure, conflict-averse, and timid -- characteristics that any leader would eschew.
Indeed, the present vote should scare voters for its complacency, its unsuredness and its opacity. Couple that with Obama's historical unwillingness to go against his party, his stated interests in restoring America's image abroad, and his warm embrace of the world's most villified dictators, and it paints the picture of a man so concerned with his standing, his popularity, and being "well-liked," that his tenuous ties to the radical left and questions about his birth certificate seem irrelevant. It takes weeks to get Obama to deliver a hard line on anything, whether it's the economy, preconditions, the surge, drilling. Committing is simply not something he likes to do, unless pressed repeatedly.
Governor Pataki agreed that Obama's "present" propensity is alarming -- I believe he used the word "irresponsible." But he thought, if anything, it proves him to be far more extreme than even we know. For Pataki, it reflects a strategic desire on the part of Obama, the country's most liberal senator, to withhold views that he knew would be received unfavorably, and because he knew he'd one day run for president. For me the "present" vote makes Obama a timid waffler, and for Pataki it makes him a duplicitous radical. Either way, there's a lot of meat on the "present" stick to pull apart.
We ended our conversation agreeing that if Sarah Palin were a legislator who voted "present" as often as Barack Obama, she would have been crucified by liberals and the liberal media as inexperienced, irresponsible, flighty, unqualified, frivolous and every other demeaning adjective that's already been used to describe the Governor of Alaska -- the only person on either ticket with executive experience. Not surprisingly, Pataki thinks Palin's resume makes her especially qualified to run alongside McCain.
Obama's relatinoship with domestic terrorist Bill Ayers and unseemly characters has made for good television. We love a good villain, after all. But like McCain always says, we need to look at his record. And the most damning thing on there isn't a vote for this spending increase or against that tax cut -- it's the 129 votes that he simply refused to cast.