The USA Today/Gallup Poll of late March suggests a strategy for Sen. John McCain (R-Ariz.) in the general election. The poll compared Sen. Barack Obama (D-Ill.) and McCain on certain key variables. Here were the results:
• Cares about the needs of people like you, 66% to 54%
• Shares your values, 51% to 46%
• Understands the problems Americans face in their daily lives, 67% to 55%
• Is a strong, decisive leader, 56% to 69%
• Is honest and trustworthy, 63% to 67%
• Can manage the government efficiently, 48% to 60%
• Has a clear plan for solving the country’s problems, 41% to 42%
• Has a clear vision for the country’s future, 67% to 65%
• Would work well with both parties in Washington to get things done, 62% to 61%
• Is someone you would be proud to have as president, 57% to 55%
So Obama won the traditional Democratic (and female) virtues of understanding problems and caring about people. McCain won the usual Republican (and male) virtues of strong leadership and efficient management.
In an age of terrorism, weakness is a capital crime. McCain ne eds to base his campaign on establishing Obama’s weakness and his own strong leadership by comparison.
It is in this context that we must analyze Obama’s problems with the Rev. Wright and his emerging problems with former terrorist Bill Ayers. The American people are not about to judge Obama guilty by association, even with a lowlife type like Ayers and an anti-American like Wright. But they will see, in Obama’s tentativeness in handling these controversies and his “decency” in refusing to cut off his relationships and condemn these men, a sign of weakness that will hurt his campaign.
There is in Obama something of the Democratic candidate for president in the 1950s, Adlai Stevenson. Both from Illinois, they share an eloquence that lifts them above normal political figures and a profundity of thought that lies behind it. But each was seen as weak, and Stevenson as indecisive. Obama’s over-intellectualization of issues and of the problems that crop up in his campaign will increasingly harden into a perception of a lack of sufficient strength to deal with America’s problems.
The right wing tried to attack John Kerry in 2004 for a lack of patriotism and commitment to American values, just as it is now doing to Obama. It likely fell short of its goal. But the pressure it brought to bear on Kerry, through the Swift Boat ad and other attacks, led people to conclude that Kerry flip-flopped on issues and led them to discount what he said during his campaign.
Similarly, Americans will not buy that Obama is un-American. But the pressure the right brings to bear on him will cause him to appear weak in the face of attacks.
McCain needs to hammer away at the issue of strength and leadership and deal decisively with the problems that crop up in the campaign, while Obama dithers, thinks things through and tries to parse hairs in his responses.
Here the Iraq issue op ens a real opportunity for McCain, where otherwise his support for the war would be a real negative. Iraq is a lot like Social Security. Everyone knows there is a problem, but any solution is immediately shot down. The issue earned the label “the third rail” in our politics, a status that was underscored when Bush’s momentum from his 2004 reelection was smashed against the rocks of Democratic and elderly opposition to his Social Security reform plan.
So it is with Iraq: He who proposes an alternative is doomed. McCain’s position, that we have to stay until we win, is far from popular, but it’s a lot better than unilateral and immediate withdrawal.
And Obama’s opposition to the war begs a host of questions: Shall we retain any presence? What about al Qaeda? What happens if the government falls? Can we let Iran take over? Obama will dither and seem far from decisive as he answers each of these questions. They will make him loo k terrible, just as Kerry — in opposing the war after voting for it — looked like a flip-flopper.
McCain can use the predisposition of voters to see Obama as weak, coupled with the Iraq issue, to make the strength issue his key advantage.