McCain’s Hillary Problem

Illustration by André Carrilho

Feel free to tell me I’m nuts for asking the question, but doesn’t it seem that, more and more, the McCain campaign is turning into the Clinton campaign?

The comparison smacked me upside the head last week, when the turmoil and melodrama attending the internal functioning—or, rather, dysfunctioning—of the Republican nominee’s organization burst into public view. Just a few days after John McCain had shaken up his operation, demoting his campaign manager Rick Davis and elevating bullet-headed adjutant Steve Schmidt to a position of putative near-total authority, Bill Kristol confidently predicted in his column in the Times that McCain would soon bring consultant Mike Murphy aboard as the campaign’s chief strategist. Kristol wasn’t flat wrong, or so I’m told by a longtime McCain confidant. The Arizona senator did indeed offer the gig to Murphy, who served on McCain’s 2000 primary bid and whose counsel the candidate had been receiving on the down-low for months. But the outcry among McCain’s other advisers, many of whom openly loathe Murphy, was simply too intense. So a little more than 24 hours after Kristol’s column was published, Murphy announced that his reentry wasn’t gonna happen; instead, he would be going to work for MSNBC.

Now, it’s fair to point out that strife is nothing new to McCain campaigns, which tend to be less well-oiled machines than spastic-goat rodeos. Yet it’s hard not to see the similarities between the chaos afflicting McCain-land now and what went on in Clinton-world during the primaries. In the former, like the latter, you have an outfit with no clear lines of authority, rife with elephantine egos and feuding factions that have been at each other’s throats for years, none with the slightest compunction about bearing their animosities (albeit anonymously) in the press. And in McCain, like Clinton, you have a candidate who not only tolerates but seems to encourage an atmosphere of anarchy—and who finds it difficult to fire anyone, no matter how incompetent.

If the commonalities ended here, they would hardly be worth noting. In presidential races, personnel and mechanics matter, but only on the margins. Yet in ways large and small, strategic and tactical, temperamental and attitudinal, the McCain campaign strikes me as having been cut from the same cloth as Hillary Clinton’s. Same story with the candidates themselves, in particular when it comes to their jaundiced perceptions of their rival. For supporters of Barack Obama, this might seem cheery news, since those perceptions led Clinton time and again to misplay her hand. But general elections are very different from primaries—and there are reasons to worry that Clintonianism, taken to its logical (and gruesome) extreme, may serve McCain better than it did the real McCoy.

That Clinton and McCain would run similar races might seem odd. Their ideological differences are severe, and no one sane would ever call Clinton a maverick or McCain a feminist. But it’s also true that they share a view of politics and policy. They venerate the Senate as a noble institution, not as the imagination-deadening, soul-destroying hellhole that it is. They regard legislative experience, forging compromises in the trenches, as formative and indispensable. They see having national-security chops as a sine qua non for sitting in the Oval Office.

It was this conception of politics and the presidency, however, that got Hillary into so much trouble in her battle with Obama. And while McCain largely avoids the rhetorical traps she fell into—the laundry-listy rhetoric, the countless small-bore policy proposals—the thrust of his campaign is much the same as hers was: The emphasis on résumé, the willful avoidance of grappling with the desire for change so evident in the electorate, and, perhaps most problematic, the eschewal of big, bold, animating ideas and grand thematics.

This was not, it should be said, the kind of campaign that McCain and his advisers planned at the outset. Back in the days when McCain was still being guided by John Weaver, the strategist–cum–soul mate who crafted his message in 2000 and then fell out of favor in mid-2007 when McCain’s campaign imploded, the idea had been to run on a handful of sweeping reformist goals—entitlement reform, ethics reform, immigration reform, spending reform, etc.—and position McCain as willing to put country ahead of personal political ambition. How? As reported first by The Atlantic’s Marc Ambinder, when McCain announced his candidacy, he was “inches away” from pledging to serve only one term if elected. “It would have been the most selfless act in modern American politics,” a Republican told Ambinder—and one that would have served as a powerful contrast point in a race against either Clinton or Obama.

But McCain was persuaded at the last minute to abandon the idea by his friends Senator Lindsey Graham and former senator Phil Gramm—just as Clinton was convinced not to run a bolder, more human campaign by the more conservative voices in her sphere. Since then, McCain’s effort, like Clinton’s, has been increasingly poll-driven (offshore oil drilling, anyone?), corporate (the phalanx of lobbyists that surrounds him, robbing him of his reformist cred), and almost entirely lacking any positive vision of what he wants to achieve as president, beyond winning the war in Iraq. Indeed, McCain’s assorted flip-flops, notably regarding his position on the Bush tax cuts, have left him vulnerable to the charge that was ultimately most damaging to Clinton and is even more damaging to him, given his image as a principled straight-talker: that he will say and do anything to win.

None of this is lost on the people around McCain, though they regard the perceptions as unfair. And while none of them will put it anywhere near this bluntly, they believe that it hardly matters. The fall election, in their view, will to a large extent be a referendum on Obama: Will voters trust him enough to be president? Will they believe he is up to the job? Can the McCain campaign raise enough doubts about him to, in effect, elect their guy by default?

And here we arrive at a second set of views held in common by McCain and Clinton: their views about Obama. How closely in sync are the two of them when it comes to the hopemonger? The other day I suggested a sort of thought experiment to someone close to McCain for years: If Hillary wrote down on paper all the things she thought about Obama and handed the paper to McCain and asked him to check the ones he agreed with, what percentage would be marked? “Oh, 90 percent, at least,” this person said.

The opinions of both of them, not surprisingly, would be skeptical, harsh, dismissive: that Obama is a lightweight, that he’s a line-cutter, that he’s arrogant, elitist, all talk no action. And that perspective is evident in the campaign that McCain and the Republicans more broadly are running against Obama. In tone and substance, once again, the similarities to the broadsides that Clinton and her people launched against him are striking. More than one GOP e-mail in recent weeks has taunted him with the phrase “Just words.”

As was the case with Clinton, McCain’s dismissiveness of Obama often seems to cross the line into resentment—and seems to have two primary sources. The first revolves around Obama’s rock-star status, around the size of his crowds, which McCain’s aides are forever prone to mock. “Yeah, he’s got his ‘mine is bigger than yours’ thing, but when does that get to be too much?” one said to me recently. They point to his plans to deliver his nomination-acceptance speech at the Democratic convention in the Broncos’ stadium rather than the arena in Denver—along with the possibility that he might orate at the Brandenburg Gate this summer—as signs of raging hubris.

The second source of resentment owes to Obama’s treatment by the press, which the McCain people, as did the Clinton people, regard as slavishly biased. “Hillary got worse treatment from the press than anyone since Nixon,” says one McCain strategist. “Now it’s happening to us.”

To be sure, there are merits to both these arguments. Obama’s craving for the big stage, the ginormous crowds, may in the end prove tactically unwise, if voters become convinced that it reflects a deep-seated egomania. And it would be hard to argue with the notion that the press was tilted toward Obama and against Clinton in the Democratic primaries, though it’s far from clear that the same dynamic will hold in his contest with McCain.

The relevant point, however, is that the resentments festering in McCain-land on both scores hold the danger of blinding the candidate and his people to larger truths: that Obama’s throngs are representative of real excitement among the electorate; that his glowing press derives from the power of the narrative that he and his campaign have constructed, which is a reality that can’t be wished—or cursed—away but that has to be countered, whether artfully or brutally.

For Hillary, of course, artfulness was beyond her and her campaign’s skill set. And to the extent she attempted brutality, it only backfired on her. Yet for all the wailing and gnashing of Obamaniac teeth over HRC’s harshness, her conduct was, in fact, fairly restrained. As Clinton’s strategists often pointed out privately, there were countless places Hillary could not go in her attempts to redefine Obama. With a few exceptions, she steered away from Reverend Wright. She indulged in no smear campaigns about Obama being a Muslim, or a communist, or whatever. But McCain is under no such constraints—and disqualifying Obama is by definition easier in a general election than it was in a Democratic primary. Consider that, despite the palpable lameness of his opponent’s effort so far, he has only a paltry three-to-five-point lead in the current national polls.

The question for Obama is whether he can persuade the public that he is who he says he is, not the alien that the Republicans will try to portray him as. It won’t be a simple task. But making it just a little bit easier will be the fact that he’s running against a man who seems intent on cross-dressing as the former First Lady.

See Also
Obama’s Plan for a Big Win— and His Greatest Weakness


McCain’s Hillary Problem