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Is John McCain Bob Dole?

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These are all superficial things, you might say, and you’d be correct. But Republicans cite deeper, more worrying commonalities between McCain and Dole. “You’d fly around with Dole in 1996 and try to talk message, and all he wanted to know was who was going to be up onstage with him at the next event,” recalls an operative who worked for Dole in his pre-Viagra days. “Same deal now with McCain. He has no message outside of Iraq. What’s John McCain’s health plan? What’s his tax plan? What’s his high-tech plan? No one in a million years can tell you.”

Scott Reed, Dole’s campaign manager, doesn’t disagree with many of these parallels. “Can’t lift their arms above their heads, can’t comb their own hair—yeah,” he says. “Teleprompter-challenged—right.” But Reed points out a salient difference between 1996 and today. “What happened with Dole was that the Democrats were able to aim both bazookas at us,” he explains. “They took all their primary money and used it to create the Dole-Gingrich two-headed monster, and we were never able to get up off the mat. But the Democrats aren’t able to do that now. They may never be able to do it.”

Reed is right. For all the wailing and gnashing of molars among Democrats about the damage being done to Obama and Clinton by their prolonged primary tussle, the greater cost to the party may be the missed opportunity to unload on McCain this spring. To no small extent, presidential campaigns are battles that boil down to a pair of competing efforts to define the opposition. Were BHO and HRC not still endeavoring to hack each other to pieces with metaphorical meat cleavers, Democrats could be using their huge financial advantage to cast McCain in whatever mold they consider most damaging: Dubya II, Dole II, Attila the Hun II, whatever. But instead it’s the GOP that’s getting a head start in the definition derby—especially concerning Obama.

Back in November 2006, a few days after the midterm elections, McKinnon and I were gabbing on the phone about the hopemonger’s rise. “I think Obama would be a real interesting candidate,” he said. “And if it’s McCain-Obama, that’s a real win-win for the country. There’s this great documentary on Barry Goldwater, and it reveals that he and JFK were having conversations about how, if they were the nominees in 1964, they were going to jump on a plane and campaign together around the country—go from city to city, debating each other in a respectful way. Which is a really interesting idea, and just the sort of thing you could see McCain and Obama doing. Wouldn’t that be great?”

“In 2000, he was the candidate of reform, of anger, of screw the system,” says a Republican consultant. “Now he’s the candidate of lobbyists, endorsements, and special deals with Beltway banks.”

McKinnon isn’t your typical political mechanic or your standard-brand Republican. Until 1998, in fact, his résumé included only clients of the Democratic persuasion—and not just any Democrats, but the likes of Michael Dukakis and former Texas governor Ann Richards. Even after two presidential campaigns in the service of Bush, he remains a sensitive soul. So I wasn’t totally surprised when he declared, “I’m gonna tell McCain that if Obama is the Democratic nominee, I’m not gonna work against him; I’m just not going to make any negative ads against Barack Obama.”

A noble sentiment, to be sure, and a pledge that McKinnon continues to insist he intends to honor—though many of his friends suspect he’ll find it hard to abandon ship when the moment of truth arrives. But it’s not a widely shared feeling in the McCain campaign or the GOP writ large. If Obama is the nominee, you can bet the mortgage money that there will be no happy-pappy fly-arounds. (For one thing, McCain gives every indication of regarding Obama the same way that Clinton does: as a flyweight, a line-cutter, and a preening neophyte.) No, the GOP campaign against the Land of Lincolner will be unrelentingly brutal.

The contours of that campaign are already coming into view—and not just by studying the early maneuvers on the Republican side. “Our strategy will look a fair amount like the one that Hillary is running against him now,” a party official says. “It’ll build on two things: first, that he’s way too inexperienced to be commander-in-chief, which not only polls incredibly well but has the virtue of being true; and, second, that he’s way too liberal.”

When it comes to experience, Republicans believe the contrast between McCain and Obama will be plain to see, and much more meaningful that it has been in the Democratic race. When it comes to liberalism, they invariably cite National Journal, which concluded that Obama had the most left-wing voting record in the Senate. “Is there any chance the Republicans would ever nominate the guy who’s furthest to the right?” asks Reed. “Everyone throws around the L-word like it’s a scarlet, but there’s something there.”


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