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Could the cure be worse than the disease?

August 4, 2007

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Why McCain’s new strategy may be even worse that his old one

One of the reasons why this web-log has disproportionately focused on Senator McCain’s campaign is that he is the one candidate who could dramatically alter the dynamics of the race. It makes little difference whether the Republicans choose Romney, Giuliani or Thompson because the result will probably be a narrow Democrat victory (a result that looks far more likely with each passing poll). In contrast, McCain is the only candidate who could not only beat Hillary but defeat her convincingly, restoring some unity to the country. Indeed, Bloomberg’s pretensions of running for President aside, McCain is the only candidate who would have a chance at succeeding as an independent. However, his recent decision to retool his campaign by flip-flopping on immigration and moving even more to the right on economic issues seems to be the political equivalent of a neutron bomb – destroying the things which made him great while leaving the pandering that got him in these straits intact.

Indeed, up until now much of this pandering has been cosmetic – after all elections are not won or lost on issues such as abortion or gay marriage (indeed polls show that a majority of Americans want more restrictions on abortion). However, McCain’s move from opposing Bush’s tax cuts to promising sign a bill replacing income tax with a national sales tax if such as bill was passed by congress (though it should be noted that he only promised to sign it – not that he would initiate any legislation) is far more serious. Simillarly, his recent decision to introduce an enforcement-only immigration bill directly undermines one of his previous legislative initiatives and along with his courting of the ‘base’ on other issues, has signalled a move to the right. So where does this leave McCain? Indeed, it seems that his decision to replace John Weaver, Mark Salter and Terry Nelson was a victory for those who wanted him to move to the right, rather than a move away from Bush.

A sense of perspective is needed. In the three latest national opinion polls McCain scores an average of 15% which puts him solidly in third, five points ahead of Mitt Romney. For all the media hysteria he is competitive in New Hampshire and actually leads in South Carolina. On the question of dealing with Iraq he is the most highly rated candidate of both the major parties. He still has his exceptional military record and a solid record (in the past eight years) as ‘the conscience of the Senate’. His strategy of focusing on town hall meetings is extremely sensible, and it seems to be generating some crowds. At the same time his new immigration bill, although enforcement only, is actually quite mild. However, I believe that this new strategy will hurt him, not least because he will alienate even more moderates without winning him any friends among the far right. Indeed, even if he manages to win the nomination with this strategy he will be so compromised that he will become as unelectable as any other Republican.

The ironic thing is that he doesn’t need to pander. The conventional wisdom is that the independents who gave him a crushing victory in eight years ago will turn out in the Democrat primary instead and vote for Obama. However, as Hillary Clinton extends her lead over the rest of the field, independents will start to turn their attention to the Republican field. Let’s remember that in 2000 everyone expected large numbers of independents to vote for Bill Bradley. At the same time McCain needs to realise that the anti-immigration and anti-everything wing of the Republican Party will never feel anything but hatred for him. McCain should also realise that, even with the movement of moderates away from the GOP, the extreme right might be much small than many believe. After all, Republicans are pragmatic enough to make Rudolph Giuliani their current frontrunner (although he is a lot less delectable than many of them believe) and 59% of them were pragmatic enough to vote for a left-of-centre former Democrat in Connecticut (according to the CNN exit poll).

So what should McCain do? Having made his point he should withdraw his bill before anyone notices his change of opinion (or at least include some nominal legalization element). Alternatively, he could introduce it but oppose the inevitable deluge of amendments designed to strengthen it (while supporting those which grant a path to legalization). Then, if enough amendments are added to it he could withdraw the bill, having proved that Republicans are only interested in immigrant bashing, as opposed to border security. He should then start taking on Michelle Malkin, Ann Coulter, Lou Dobbs and the other figureheads of the Republican right. Indeed, now may be a time to dust off his ‘agents of intolerance’ speech again – though this time he needs to demonstrate that he will stick to his guns. In effect, rather than heeding the calls to ‘nail three conservative issues and attack Hillary Clinton’ he should concentrate on keeping the faith on Iraq and returning to his original positions on tax, corruption and immigration. This strategy may seem unrealistic, as it is probably more likely that he’ll only realise his error when he falls to single figures in the polls, but it is the only one which will make him a frontrunner again. The coming debate with Ron Paul, if it ever happens, may provide him with an anti-tax, anti-war and pro-drugs straw man to fight against.

To surmise, McCain is a person who has stuck with positions that have been unpopular with both the right and the left. Instead of backing down, his best strategy would be to stick with his guns on immigration and Iraq and return to the centre on economic issues.

Disclaimer: Due to the ridiculous prices available on McCain in the betting markets, I have staked money on him becoming the GOP nominee and the next President. I also have positions on other candidates.

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