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Posted by on May 1, 2008 in At TMV | 8 comments

Does McCain Need a Sister Souljah Moment?

CNN reports that President Bush is the least popular president in modern history. A liberal acquaintance is gleeful believing that this proves the president is the worst ever. My belief is that while the President won’t be in my top ten, I think one might want to allow the historians to determine this and not the fleeting opinions of moment.

That said, this President won’t be remembered favorably by most Americans. President Bush’s unfavorability has had major consequences for the GOP, causing the Republicans to lose Congress is 2006 and quite possibly the White House this year. The Democrats are trying hard to paint Senator John McCain as a Bush clone. Is there much truth to this? Not really, but he is of the same party as the President and has agreed with Bush on several issues, so if I were a Democratic operative, I would be doing what they are doing. It’s low hanging fruit.

So, what is McCain to do? The presumptive GOP nominee is in a hard position. While the President is not popular among most Americans, there is still a hard core group of loyalists that hold power in the GOP. He has to try to placate them without totally pandering to them and also keep his independent base. Where that shows up more than anything is on domestic issues. He response to this seeming conundrum is to give something to everyone as Ross Douthat has noticed. But this has problems. Douthat notes:

The McCain campaign seems to have decided that the way to deal with the divide between GOP orthodoxy and the mood of the country is to simply be for everything that a supply-sider would be for (extending the Bush tax cuts, cutting the corporate rate, flattening the tax brackets) and for everything a deficit hawk would be for (porkbusting, freezing discretionary spending, entitlement reform) and for everything that a more centrist or reform-minded GOP politician might favor (tax cuts for families, action on global warming, federal dollars for health coverage for the uninsurable), with a few egregious, gas tax-style panders thrown in besides – and then never mind that it doesn’t add up financially, because none of it is going to be enacted anyway.

The problem with this approach, as I’ve argued before, isn’t just that McCain will eventually get called on the fact that the numbers don’t really add up; it’s that “we’re for everything a Republican could possibly be for” isn’t really much of a domestic-policy narrative for a Presidential campaign, particularly in a recession year when the GOP brand is at rock-bottom, and particularly for a candidate whose whole shtick is predicated on being a straight-talking, orthodoxy-busting maverick. But it’s tough to see how a better narrative emerges at this point.

And then thing is, the Democrats are watching and whoever the nominee is, will bring up this scattershot approach. So what is the answer? Douthat points to a post over at the Weekly Standard:

McCain is set up to launch a remarkably competitive Republican candidacy in this most unusual political year. Will the lobbyist-heavy McCain campaign then have the political courage to let McCain be McCain and brave the intra-party pain of a big defining Sister Souljah moment with GOP orthodoxy? Only that will recapture the anti-GOP voters McCain needs, and win the election.

My fellow blogger, Mark Daniels wrote in a post a while back that McCain should not have gone to the White House to visit the President after he won the nomination. I still think he can’t totally diss the President publicly since he has to try to keep Republicans and also keep independents. However, McCain also needs to know that President Bush is the Jeremiah Wright to his Barack Obama. The President is an albatross on McCain’s neck and the Democrats know this and will exploit it as they should.

But McCain has other problems. As Douthat said, the GOP brand is at an all time low, not simply because of President Bush, but the six years of a lapdog Republican Congress as well. The GOP has had a narrative for 30 years: small government, low taxes, strong defense, moral values. Like the Democrats in the 70s, the narrative that worked so well in the past has grown tired and not relevant to the current times. When taxes are already low, you really can’t use the “taxes-are-too-high” excuse.

McCain will need to chart a new course. He knows that even if he gets elected President, he will have to face a Democratic Congress, so any kind of “Republican Revolution” is out of the question. So, why not use this time to create a new story? Why not jettison that which isn’t working anymore, even though party stalwarts like it, and try some new things? Personally, I think he should try the whole “centrist reform” track ala 2000. He can create a new way while also implying that he isn’t going the way President Bush did. He did that during his stop in New Orleans recently. I think he should do that more. The fact is, the most die hard Republican knows that what the party has done in the last few years hasn’t worked. So, turning away from what has been done may not be as big a gamble as some might think.

Can McCain be McCain and forge a new path for the GOP in what is shaping up to be a Democratic era? We shall see in the coming months.

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