John McCain and the maverick image

With Barack Obama and Hillary Clinton still busy campaigning for their party’s nomination, other groups have taken the initiative of crafting the strategy to be used against Republican John McCain. Their first goal will be to undermine the image of McCain as a “maverick;” the Arizona Senator is sure to use his reputation as a moderate to capitalize on his popularity among independents.

To counter this threat, Democrats have come up with two methods. First, convince voters that McCain is no centrist. Second, show that what is perceived as moderation is in fact opportunistic politicking. In short, Democrats want to make McCain into the mirror image of John Kerry: an out-of touch flip-flopper.

The first strategy, then, is to portray John McCain as a fundamentally conservative politician, and Democrats believe their best argument is to denounce McCain for running for George Bush’s third term. The GOP would have been even more vulnerable to this line of attack had they selected another candidate, but Democrats believe that McCain made himself into a target by cozying up to the White House in recent years.

On no issue has McCain has come to be associated with the Bush Administration as much as on the Iraq War. For a few months, prominent Democrats called the surge strategy the “McCain doctrine.” They ceased to do so when public opinion became less critical of the surge, but they are stepping up attacks on other aspects of McCain’s hawkishness. The Senator’s statement that the United States could stay in Iraq for a hundred years has already become one of the Democrats’ favorite lines – and it is sure to haunt the Arizona Senator all the way to November.

Iraq is not the only subject on which McCain's positions are not centrist, and Dem-supporting groups know they must act quickly to highlight those aspect of the candidate's record to show his moderate reputation is illusory. NARAL, the pro-choice advocacy group, has launched an effort to do so about abortion, on which McCain has a strongly pro-life record (especially when compared to some of his former GOP rivals). Worried that too many pro-choice voters believe McCain's abortion position is acceptable, NARAL created a new website, Meet the Real McCain, explicitly seeking to strike down the "maverick" image:

The REAL John McCain is not the "moderate maverick" the pundits like to swoon over. The REAL McCain has spent the last 25 years amassing one of the worst anti-choice voting records in Congress.

The second strategy -- to transform McCain's moderation into opportunism -- is also being put in place, as Democrats must have learned from 2004 that the flip-flop charge needs time (and a lot of repetition) to stick, but once it does it is hard for a politician to shake it off. Obama likes to repeat that the McCain straight talk bus lost its wheels, and McCain's change of position on Bush's tax cuts was one of the main lines of attacks against him during the GOP primaries.

It's clear that if Democrats succeed in painting McCain as an unprincipled opportunist, his strongest advantage (his maverick image) would become his biggest liability. But we are certainly very far from that: McCain is a known politician and voters already have a clear opinion of him, and that makes him that much harder to define. In 2004, John Kerry was mostly unknown nationally (even after the primaries, in which he jumped back to the first-tier only in the days leading to Iowa) and the multi-million Republican spending spree in the spring and early summer introduced him to voters before he had a chance to introduce himself.

If the Democratic nominee had already been chosen, his/her campaign could turn its million against McCain in a repeat of 2004 (and of other elections like 1996 where Clinton destroyed Dole before the latter got to his convention). But that is not the case, so the DNC is doing what it can, starting with a new website, McCain Debates, which features the Arizona Senator debating (and contradicting) himself on a variety of issues. At the end of every "round" a picture of Bush shows up in an effort to link McCain to the President while simultaneously painting him as wavering. It is remarkable how much this "debating yourself" imagery echoes 2004, when very similar websites and ads had popped up against John Kerry. The "Kerry v. Kerry" debates have now been placed by McCain's.

The New York Times is weighing this morning on what key argument in the debate around John McCain: His flirting with Democrats in 2001 about switching parties and his talks with John Kerry in 2004 about joining his ticket. Both of these episodes are already known, but no one really knows with certainty what happened and how serious McCain was on both occasions. The NYT article recognizes this and provides us with detailed accounts of what both sides are saying:

Democrats contend that John McCain approached them about leaving the Republican caucus in 2001, leading to weeks of talk between him and some of the top Democrats, and that John Weaver approached the Kerry campaign about a joint ticket. McCain advisers counter that it was Democrats who were reaching out to McCain in 2001 and that the 2004 episode was Kerry's idea. Note that neither side disputes that Kerry was thrilled about the idea: "Both sides say that Mr. Kerry was so enthusiastic about the notion that he relentlessly pursued Mr. McCain, even to the point of offering him a large part of the president’s national security responsibilities.

Something else neither side denies is that there were talks between McCain and Democrats. Whether the Republican initiated the talks or not, there was an effort to convince McCain to jump ships. In a context in which he already has trouble with his party's base, it is understandable that McCain wants to run away from this story, but how stunning it is that a party's nominee considered switching parties 4 years before he clinched the nomination points to how crucial efforts to define McCain will be:

Will such stories help McCain portray himself as moderate and convince voters that he would not simply be Bush's third term? Or will Democrats succeed in using these episodes as proof that he changes his most fundamental principles easily and that he is an opportunist rather than a crusader? The answer to this question depends on how quickly Democrats open heavy fire on the Republican, and whether they do so early enough that McCain doesn't have enough funds to respond.

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