Despite my best efforts, in the last few days I've caught snippets of strangely familiar language from John McCain. First, a clumsy attack on the Fed for failing to cut interest rates "faster" so as to stave off recession. Then, the sudden embrace of a repeatedly scorned "no new taxes" pledge.
On Monday, it hit me while watching McCain accept the endorsement of another liver-spotted former naval aviator: McCain is turning into George Herbert Walker Bush before our very eyes.
If that is true, the crucial question becomes: Is Barack Obama more Michael Dukakis or Bill Clinton? Don't laugh. The answer is far more salient to who becomes the next President than feverish declarations that Obama in the heir to JFK or that McCain is really Winston Churchill.
Let's also stipulate that Hillary Clinton should not be forgot—not until the last spark of energy is wrung from her battle-chassis will she concede, and perhaps not then. Still in her playbook—the triple-whammy cry, where she and Bill and Chelsea all cut loose. Don't rule it out.
But the GOP's electoral offering is locked in stone, and one half of the November equation is set. McCain has an absolute ceiling as a candidate above which he cannot rise. He cannot out-debate or out-speechify his opponent, and he is prickly and prone to outbursts. In short, voters absolutely must prefer him on substance, not style, for McCain to win.
So, what about that substance? Here we find McCain in favor of perpetual war in Iraq, possibly a new war with Iran, an immigration reform process loathed by conservatives, and rewriting the First Amendment to protect incumbent federal office holders, plus hatred of earmark spending and support for tax cuts, then opposition to tax cuts, now morphed into a pledge against future tax hikes. Overlay this with a general suspicion of all motives not directly tied in to government "service" and you have a candidate with something to offend very many voting blocs.
Now recall that in 1988 Bush I was a similar polyglot—East Coast blue blood, Texas oilman, Nixon Republican suspicious of "voodoo economics," loyal Veep to Hollywood shaman—but he had the considerable advantage of running for Ronald Reagan's third term. And that was enough to beat a Dukakis.
Four years later a rudderless Poppy was helpless before Bill Clinton's mix of energy, outsider myth, and rope-a-hope symbolism. Whatever we can say today about Obama, surely one of the truest things is that stylistically he is no Dukakis. If so, McCain must find some substantial difference to hold up in front of voters or go the way of GHWB and the last aging senator/war hero the GOP coughed up for commander-in-chief, Bob Dole.
McCain's backers find this vital difference in the Arizona senator's support of "the surge" in Iraq, equal parts community policing on full-autopilot and cash money for well-armed Sunni tribes. This reduces to positive outcomes for U.S. policy in the Middle East and perhaps more broadly to a stronger, more grounded foreign policy in general. Sure enough, this stance contrasts sharply with Obama's come-home-and-save-money message.
The trouble with either camp counting on foreign policy differences to drive voters their way is the fact that neither McCain nor Obama can remotely control international events in the next few months. Another Abu Ghraib-type scandal and McCain is mortally wounded, while Obama must live in fear of another Live from a Cave tape featuring an endorsement from Osama bin Laden.
Not content with these undependable foreign policy differences, the economic plan Obama spun out in Wisconsin last week provided a curiously large target to the former fighter pilot. It was more—much more—from the Dukakis playbook, with ramped up federal spending on social programs, at least $500 billion worth, perhaps as much as $1 trillion. Better still for a GOP admittedly uneasy about how to attack a black candidate for president, Obama provided just enough of the soak-the-rich and class-warfare rhetoric that McCain will have raw material for a domestic policy counter-jab.
This is a tremendous risk for Obama given the fact that voters have repeatedly rejected such zero-sum policies when offered up by the left. Worse, a redistributionist—retrobutionist, actually—tax policy jars harshly with his positive "change" message that so clearly appeals to the independents and young voters filling Obama's campaign events. Suggesting blowing up the current wage cap on payroll taxes, as Obama has, would not only be a massive marginal tax increase to fund unreformed entitlements, it allows McCain to close gaps with the tax-cut wing of the GOP and ride into battle somewhat united. Not smart.
Once again we are confronted with a Democratic presidential candidate unwilling, unable, or afraid to clearly embrace a tax-reform message that could flatten the code, close loopholes, and eliminate corporate welfare, all while removing the dead weight loss of needless complexity.
We are the change we've been waiting for? Looks like we may have to wait a little longer.
Jeff Taylor writes from North Carolina.