Two months ago, it looked like the McCain camp was in shambles. The Arizona senator was struggling to read from a teleprompter, giving speeches in front of garish green backdrops, and standing behind podiums that made him look small and awkward. His campaign organization was muddled, full of deadweight managers who lacked the skills to play in the big leagues, but whom the senator didn’t have the heart to fire. And instead of moving to the center, as most candidates do in the general election, McCain, if anything, was moving to the right. In national polls he was only behind by four points, but with the enthusiasm gap, the fundraising numbers, and the dismal condition of the Republican brand, pundits were confident that John McCain was well on his way to a crushing defeat in November.
Fast forward to the present. The once-stumbling McCain is now outclassing his opponent in forums like the Saddleback Club. The once-muddled campaign has squared away the deadweight and replaced it with top Republican operatives. And the once-ridiculed move to the right is paying dividends. With surging numbers in the polls, electoral vote predictors like FiveThirtyEight.com have watched John McCain go from a five-to-two underdog to a slight favorite.
It’s not luck. Despite his poor public speaking, his organizational problems, and the rotten condition of the party, two months ago McCain held one advantage over Barack Obama that would trump everything else: he understood the difference between a mommy election and a daddy election.
A mommy election is an election focused on economic issues: health care, job growth, education. Democrats win mommy elections.
A daddy election is an election focused on national security issues: the War on Terror, foreign policy, Iraq. Republicans win daddy elections.
On May 26th, in an Associated Press interview, John McCain laid down the gauntlet, challenging Barack Obama to visit Iraq and see the situation on the ground for himself. Had Obama understood the importance of keeping the national focus on the economy, he would have immediately answered McCain’s challenge with one of his own: “Senator McCain, I want you to visit Detroit with me. I want you to see the situation on the ground for yourself. I want you to see the conditions that American citizens are living in.”
Instead, Obama hemmed and hawed and talked about how he’d “consider” visiting Iraq. For two straight weeks McCain stayed on message, pummeling Obama with his challenge. “It’s a trap!” cried the talking heads. If Obama visits Iraq, then the conversation shifts to foreign policy, but if he doesn’t visit Iraq he leaves McCain an opening to keep bringing foreign policy up, again and again and again.
In the end, Obama made the best out of a lose-lose situation. With a masterfully orchestrated international tour and a catchy one-liner (“George Bush and John McCain don’t have a strategy for success in Iraq — they have a strategy for staying in Iraq.”), he not only passed the McCain challenge, but also used the opportunity to sound more hawkish on a range of foreign policy issues, from Iran to Iraq to Israel. By closing the policy gap between himself and Senator McCain, Obama denied his opponent the traction needed to push foreign policy issues back into the limelight. For a week, John McCain could do nothing but split hairs between horizons and timetables. And so, at the start of August, it looked like Obama would have an opportunity to push the focus back on to the economic issues where he was handily defeating his opponent: Health care, the economy, and education.
Instead, Obama stepped off of O-Force One without a clear message. The vacuum was quickly filled with talk of offshore drilling and speculation as to why Obama’s international tour didn’t give him a bounce in the polls. The Illinois senator, seemingly oblivious to the risks he was taking by not taking the initiative back from John McCain, decided to go on a Hawaiian vacation. August 7th, the start of the 2008 South Ossetian War, found Obama on a sandy beach, shirtless and flatfooted. With foreign policy issues once again front and center, McCain easily surged ahead.
If Obama is to have a chance in November, he needs to be much more aggressive in bringing economic issues back into the forefront of the election. He cannot simply sit back and wait for national security issues to die down; there will always be a South Ossetia War somewhere in the world. It could come in the form of concerns about China’s rise following their Olympic performance, or violence and uncertainty in Pakistan, or a terrorist attack at home or abroad — whatever the form that it comes in, Obama must understand that left unopposed, John McCain will make national security the center of the race.
James Carville’s advice to Bill Clinton on how to win the 1992 election rings just as true today: It’s the economy, stupid.
Keith Yost is a graduate student in the Department of Nuclear Science and Engineering and the Engineering Systems Division.