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John McCain’s road to the Whitehouse

July 2, 2007

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How the senator from Arizona can pull his campaign back from the brink

As I have said in a previous article, John McCain is the strongest candidate out of all those who have declared or are likely to declare. His campaign is also in serious trouble with fundraising figures that are likely to be extremely disappointing and Giuliani, and now Fred Thompson, ahead of him the polls. The defeat of the immigration reform bill that McCain helped to construct, mainly due to pressure from the Republican grassroots, also appears to be a blow for his campaign.

Be less defensive – This may seem a strange piece of advice given that many commentators believe that his candour on Iraq and Immigration has cost him his frontrunner status. However, McCain’s problem is that he seems to fail to produce appropriate rhetoric to match the substance of his message. For instance, his attempts to argue the case for a much needed immigration amnesty were hampered by his attempts to emphasise the enforcement elements of his bill. Similarly, his talk about a ‘humble’ foreign policy undermines his message about a need to defeat Islamist terror abroad. This doesn’t mean that McCain has a secret Isolationist agenda but it does mean that his preference for couching radical policies in defensive language is handicapping his ability to promote his agenda. The most memorable moments of his campaign, and those which have highlighted his ‘straight-talking’ image, were his comments about possible military action against Iran (his “Barbara Ann” joke) and his comments during the recent Republican debate about the number of Mexican-American’s killed in Vietnam. Whatever the commentators say, McCain needs a lot more of those moments.

Aim for the centre – After eight years of George Bush America has moved noticeably to the left on issues such as poverty, corruption and healthcare. Ironically, McCain seems to have moved in the opposite direction on both social and economic issues. While this is more perception that reality, McCain has both a strong legislative record on healthcare and his opposition to Bush’s tax cuts and an advanced recognition of the social consequences of failing to grant legal status to immigrants, he has co-opted much of the rhetoric of the right. It is difficult to reconcile a call for fiscal responsibility and a belief that, ‘one of the great challenges we may face in the 21st century is this failure to close the gap between the richest and the poorest … particularly at a time when we’ve had a very healthy economy and low employment’, with the rhetoric of Arthur Laffer. This is not a suggestion that McCain should go to the extremes of John Edwards but rather that he needs to outline sensible centrist solutions, such as a rebalancing of the tax code away from hardworking families (i.e raising the top rate of tax but cutting the bottom rates) and a balanced expansion of healthcare coverage. He also needs to broaden his critique of corruption and pork-barrel spending to encompass tax evasion and a reinvigoration of the antitrust laws.

Fire the staff and consultants from Bush’s campaign – If there is one issue that has prompted cynicism from his supporters is his decision to employ many of the consultants from the Republican establishment, including those who ran a vicious smear campaign against him. Indeed, his willingness to overlook the personal nature of the attacks that many of those now working for him employed against him, while highlighting that he is strong enough to put aside grudges, opens McCain up to charges of Dukakis style weakness. In any case, while keeping them on his payroll may have made strategic sense when he was the undisputed frontrunner for the nomination and the only alternative to Giuliani, the same logic no longer applies now that Fred Thompson has emerged as an elect able and conservative alternative. You even have to wonder, given the level to which they descended in 2000 and their previous affiliation with Bush, whether they even have any interest in a McCain victory, something no candidate should have to ask about his staff. In any case they are patently unable to take part in the style of campaign that McCain now needs to wage and should be fired for that reason alone.

Contemplate an independent run – Although Bloomberg’s ego trip might have seemingly reduced the viability of this option I believe that either media interest will have dwindled by around October or Bloomberg himself will have pulled out. In any case a McCain independent candidacy, unlike that of Bloomberg, would have had a basic level of support of around 20-25% and if he was able to push the Republican nominee into third place early on (not an impossible task) he could force Republicans to tactically rally around him (as they did with Lieberman in 2006). The upside of contemplating an independent run would be that it would force him to appeal the centre rather than trying to aim his message at all parts of the Republican Party.

My guess is that McCain is about 60% likely to realise that he needs to change course before it is too late and if he does there is a 40% likelihood that he will win the Republican nomination. If he doesn’t then his chances are about 5%. If he does change his campaign and doesn’t win I would say he has a 50% likelihood of running as an independent. Assuming that he has about a 25% likelihood of winning the White House as an independent and 60% of the Republican nominee produces a likelihood of winning the nomination and a 22.5% chance of becoming President.

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