Three weeks until the election and the numbers look grim. The Real Clear Politics average of polls shows Obama with a comfortable seven-point lead nationally and large leads in the most important swing states, including Ohio, Florida, and Virginia. Betting markets and computer models heavily favor Obama. On the Intrade Polling Markets the market-set odds of Obama’s winning are nearly 80 percent. On the website FiveThirtyEight.com, which applies statistical analysis used in baseball to presidential polling, Obama wins in 94 percent of all simulations. Political scientists who use sophisticated computer models to predict elections claim that the outcome of an election depends on a few fundamental variables. These include economic variables like inflation and unemployment and political variables like the incumbent party’s approval ratings. All these fundamental variables—economic woes, low approval ratings for the incumbent, dissatisfaction with the general direction of the country—point to an Obama victory.
There’s no shortage of armchair politicians lecturing McCain about where he went wrong and what he has to do to win the election. Bill Kristol suggested in Monday’s Times (10/13/08) that McCain should get rid of almost all his campaign staff, stop airing ads, and focus on doing town halls and local news interviews. Take away all the aides and the campaign strategy and the messaging, he argues, and let McCain get back to talking directly to reporters and ordinary people. But really it’s too late for any unexpected grand gesture to turn the campaign around. The Palin nomination and the suspension of the campaign to deal with the economic crisis were widely seen as stunts and another one this close to the election would make McCain start to look desperate and unhinged. Instead I would like to offer my own suggestions for the McCain campaign as it stares uphill at the election three weeks away.
First, McCain should abandon his attacks on Obama’s character and instead challenge Obama’s issue ownership on the economy and social issues. While the Democrats have pushed for a European-style social democracy, the Republicans have largely failed to articulate an alternative vision that speaks to the concerns of working-class voters. As a result, the working class is caught between the left, which offers unattractive policy proposals like government-run healthcare and often seems out of touch with their values; and the right, which, in the absence of any positive vision, panders to their worst instincts by sowing doubts about Obama and his background.
Republicans need to present a positive alternative to the liberal economic agenda that takes working class concerns seriously. Ross Douthat and Reihan Salam have written an intriguing book, Grand New Party, outlining a new strategy for the Republicans to reach these working-class voters. They argue that Republicans need to rethink conservative economic and social policy for the modern age. In this view, conservative economic policy isn’t just cutting spending and lowering taxes; it’s about tax policies that promote marriage and family. By the same token, conservative social policy isn’t just about abortion and gay marriage; it’s about economic security for working families.
Douthat and Salam argue that Republicans should present a pro-family agenda with social policies designed to discourage widespread divorce and illegitimacy. These are themes that have not been emphasized in the campaign but which have the potential to draw millions of working class voters over to the Republicans. McCain’s proposal to double the child tax credit is a step in the right direction. However, he missed an important opportunity when he passed over Minnesota Governor Tim Pawlenty, the father of so-called Sam’s Club Republicanism, for vice president.
Second, McCain should speak realistically about the need, if he is elected, to work with a Democratic Congress to find an agenda for reform that appeals to both parties. He should remind voters about his strong record of bipartisan cooperation over the years and about the many virtues of divided government, an arrangement historically favored by the American electorate. According to the libertarian Cato Institute, for example, during periods of divided government overall spending increases by 1.73 percent per year on average; whereas in times of single-party rule, this figure triples to 5.26 percent.
The prospect of divided government taps into a deeper truth about the nature of the democratic process. In the long run good governance is more about process than about outcomes. Statesmanship is the art of accommodating interests, of dialog and compromise. Bold leadership requires an appreciation for the democratic process. We don’t just trust our leaders to make the right decisions; we trust the process to work properly, so that different views are represented and decisions are made using the best available information.
The last eight years were a disaster in large part because the current president neglected process. He did not believe in engagement or deliberation or an adjustment of competing interests because he thought that statesmanship was all about courage and conviction and making an immediate decision and not looking back. John McCain has courage and conviction. But McCain also understands and respects the political process of give-and-take. John McCain can be decisive. But McCain also learns from his mistakes, and he has a wealth of personal experience and past mistakes to draw upon. McCain’s record shows that he likes working with people who disagree with him and that his first loyalty is to the political process. Consider one example. Whatever its shortcomings, the McCain-Feingold Act was fundamentally about reform and opening up the channels of political persuasion and communication and improving outcomes by improving process.
The fact is that, if elected, Obama would be under minimal pressure to consider other political points of view. To people fed up with eight years of Republican misrule this may sound like a good thing, but in fact it means the exchange of one unchecked ideology for another. Obama doesn’t have McCain’s relationship with process. By most accounts he treated his stint in the Illinois legislature as a means to an end, and he has spent almost all his time since he got in the Senate running for president. Since he launched his campaign Obama hasn’t deigned to perform his duty as chairman of the Foreign Relations committee’s subcommittee on Europe. He talks about change and reform but his lack of experience demands we believe he can craft a new politics from whole cloth.