Friday, January 25, 2008

Can Anyone Spare Some Change?

If you have spent even five minutes listening to the cable TV news broadcasters, you know by now that 2008 will be a Change Election. This is, of course, simply another way of saying that the electorate is fed up with the incumbent president. There isn't a lot of variety here: you have your Change Elections, and you have your Don't-Need-to-Change elections. The latter favor the party in power, and the former do not. This is fairly common knowledge, even if pundits' pronouncements often sound as though someone has finally decoded the Rosetta Stone.

Still, nothing is certain. The "out" party occasionally wins a Don't Change election, usually because their opponent fails to run on the incumbent's record. Think Al Gore in 2000, who foolishly fell for all that talk about "Clinton Fatigue" that dominated commentary that year (yeah, I know, Gore really won the election, but it shouldn't have even been close). It is more difficult to think of an incumbent party nominee winning a Change Election. Hubert Humphrey came close in 1968 when he belatedly rejected Lyndon Johnson's Vietnam War. Harry Truman may have pulled it off in 1948, but the quality of polling back then makes it difficult to know for sure.

In any case, you don't need Bill Schneider of CNN to tell you that a Change Election is forthcoming. You need merely to peruse the presidential approval ratings. Even with relatively less bad news coming out of Iraq, President Bush's popularity numbers have settled in the low 30s and are unlikely to rise absent an unexpected economic turnaround. The last time the "in party" faced such bleak prospects was in 1980, when the hapless Jimmy Carter was sent packing after a single term in the White House. So the deck is very much stacked against the Republicans in 2008.

Given this context, the GOP appears poised to do something very risky. They are on the verge of nominating John McCain to face off against either Hillary Clinton or Barack Obama. As appealing as McCain may be based on his war hero past, he is anything but an agent of change. The Arizona senator assumes that the supposed success of the Iraq surge has vindicated his wisdom and courage in the area of foreign policy, and perhaps it has. Unfortunately for him, however, it has also placed him squarely in the same camp as George W. Bush and Dick Cheney. Americans are looking for a president who will keep them safe, but they have tired of fruitless pre-emptive wars and they want their soldiers home from the Middle East.

Should McCain receive the Republican nomination, we will, for the first time since 1960, elect a sitting senator as Commander in Chief. Even so, McCain's tenure in Congress far exceeds that of either Obama or Clinton. The former is a fresh face; the latter is associated more with her role in a presidential administration. Only McCain will be viewed as an old Washington hand at a time when the electorate is fed up with politics as usual. The day McCain entered the House of Representatives, Barack Obama had not yet reached drinking age. When Arizona elected him to the U.S. Senate, Hillary Clinton was still the unknown First Lady of Arkansas. McCain may claim to be a maverick, but that won't change the fact that his rebel act is a quarter century old.

I suspect that Washington Democrats, off the record, would tell you that they would much rather face Senator McCain than Mitt Romney. Romney has not exactly distinguished himself so far as a presidential candidate, but he becomes less wooden every day (though the tree-to-human ratio remains unfavorable). More important, though, Romney can claim full immunity from the politics of the District of Columbia. He can boast executive experience, business success, and a record of bipartisan accommodation, which does, of course, have less to do with his own skill set than it does with the realities of life in Democratic Massachusetts.

If the Republicans are to succeed in 2008 where Hubert Humphrey failed forty years earlier, they will have to disassociate themselves as completely as possible from the failed, unpopular occupant at 1600 Pennsylvania Avenue. In that sense, their task will be much more difficult than that faced by Humphrey. Even Democrats in 1968 had had their fill of LBJ and his Vietnam obsession. This year, by contrast, a majority of the Republican base continues, all empirical evidence to the contrary, to insist that George W. Bush has achieved some form of presidential greatness.

Thus, it will be impossible to make the big, dramatic break with Bush that Humphrey made with Johnson during his presidential bid. To do so would be to risk alienating the base upon which any successful campaign would have to be built. The differences, therefore, must necessarily be symbolic. Romney's outsider status and his bipartisan record in Massachusetts fit the bill. McCain's eight-year embrace of the Bush Administration does not. This is not a picture that Republicans want to see dominate the airwaves in October.

Obviously, even Romney would have his work cut out for him in a year when the Republican president has done so much to drive his party down. But he would at least be able to start from a position of relative strength. Against even a short-term Democratic U.S. Senator, he would be the outsider.

Anything can happen in politics, of course. Nobody should write John McCain off entirely. Clinton and Obama bring their own risks and baggage to the table, and either is potentially beatable. Further, the arcane math of the Electoral College, favoring small and rural states, continues to favor the Republicans. But any notion that Senator McCain is the GOP's strongest presidential contender is, in my view, greatly mistaken.

No comments: