When James Carville insisted in 1992 that the Clinton campaign should pound home its message that President George H.W. Bush had mishandled the economy, he wasn't laying down a marker for all time that the economy is always the best presidential campaign issue. Instead, he was astutely insisting that his campaign focus on his opponent's greatest weakness.
But sometimes the most pressing issue isn't the best issue to press -- because it's not the one where your candidate can draw the best distinction with the opponent.
That's the situation John McCain finds himself in today. Yes, in Carvillian language, today's biggest issue is indeed "the economy, stupid." But John McCain talks about the economy no more convincingly than a hippopotamus dances ballet. And while Barack Obama's economic prescriptions are about as wrongheaded as Linda Blair mid-spin in The Exorcist, he at least sounds quite cogent and reasonable (until you actually think about it) when discussing them. Yes, the McCain campaign needs to find a way to undermine Obama's current polling edge on the economy, but the only thing "stupid" would be an attempt at a head-on assault from McCain's position of weakness on the issue.
McCain's a military man. He should know that it's best to attack from strength to weakness, not the other way around. Sometimes that requires a flanking maneuver.
The way to undermine Obama's apparent (if unearned) credibility on the economy is to undermine his credibility, period. Make Obama's worldview in general anathema, and you make his economic worldview anathema. And the way to do that is to place Obama outside the common culture, while rooting McCain firmly within it.
Yes, absent another national security surprise, "culture" is the best, indeed the only potentially effective, battleground available for McCain to fight on. It's a battleground on which Obama is extraordinarily vulnerable.
Without putting it as bluntly as this sentence does, McCain's campaign must pound home the message, in a coherent way, that Obama is not "one of us" -- meaning that he is estranged from, not part of, middle America. And the way to make that message relevant is to say that when times are tough it is not any one economic theory that will get Americans through the crisis, but rather that it is our American-ness, our exceptionalism, our national character that guarantees that we shall overcome.
McCAIN IS SKILLED, utterly convincing, at carrying this message. His best moments in Tuesday's debate came when he said that "America is the greatest force for good in the history of the world," and when he answered the last question by saying, "I know what it's like to have to fight to keep one's hope going through difficult times. I know what it's like to rely on others for support and courage and love in tough times. I know what it's like to have your comrades reach out to you and your neighbors and your fellow citizens and pick you up and put you back in the fight. That's what America's all about. I believe in this country. I believe in its future. I believe in its greatness."
Obama, though, sneers at the culture of middle America. Obama is the one who said that working-class Americans "get bitter, they cling to guns or religion as a way to explain their frustrations." It was Obama whose own autobiography portrays himself not as somebody who transcends race but somebody who wallows in it, somebody not integrationist but separationist, somebody who sees white people not as able to be redeemed of racism but as people to whom racism was endemic.
"The other race would always remain just that: menacing, alien, and apart," he wrote.
Obama is the one who went to Germany and proclaimed himself "a fellow citizen of the world" while apologizing that the United States has "struggled to keep the promise of liberty and equality for all of our people" as "our actions around he world have not lived up to our best intentions." Somehow, though, middle Americans won't quite cotton to a presidential candidate assuming the responsibility or right to apologize to foreigners for our country's supposed sins.
Obama is the one -- The One! -- so arrogant that he said his own nomination would be "the moment when we began to provide care for the sick and good jobs to the jobless; this was the moment when the rise of the oceans began to slow and our planet began to heal...." So arrogant, too, so presumptuous, that he designed his own presidential seal.
Also, a person in concert with our culture does not, as Obama did, start his political career in the house of and serve in co-leadership, closely consultative roles on two boards with the founder of a domestic terrorist organization, while using the boards to funnel money to groups that promoted racially separatist and other radical educational causes.
It is not enough to say that the former terrorist had somehow become a respected member of the community -- not when that terrorist remains so radical that even to this day, at least 13 years (and as many as 20 years) after Obama began his association with him, he defends his long-ago bombings and praises those who attack the United States.
Those boards also gave money to the church Obama attended for 20 years, a church whose pastor from the start told Obama (in Obama's own words in his autobiography) that life for a black man in America "probably never will be" safe and who spewed hatred from whites and America from his pulpit; and also to a radical American pro-Palestinian group.
Obama has praised the radical, hate-spewing Catholic priest Michael Pfleger. His wife has said she was never proud of America until her husband started winning presidential primaries. And they together have accepted what amounted to a real-estate gift from their state's most notorious convicted influence peddler.
What's worse is that Obama would impose his culture on the rest of us, through judges that go beyond the text of the Constitution to give legal status to their own expressions of "empathy." Empathy for the criminals, like the terrorist Bill Ayers, who go free on a technicality. Empathy for the people offended by a Christmas tree on the public square. Empathy for the 13-year-old who doesn't want to inform her mother about the abortion she is procuring, even though her mother would have to give approval for any other surgery for the daughter. Empathy for the student so offended by the presence of Army ROTC on campus that he demands that ROTC be banned. Empathy for the father offended that his child is exposed to the Pledge of Allegiance in school. Empathy for the horrible brute sentenced to death for the grisly rape of a little girl.
Oh, wait -- Obama says he himself did not approve of the decision outlawing the death penalty for child rapists. But that hardly exonerates him: Every one of the Supreme Court justices he says he admires, and who would be his models for future appointments, decided on their own authority that the death penalty, even for a grisly child rapist, violates their own standards of decency.
Finally, of course -- and this is an issue McCain's campaign should mention every hour of every day between now and the election -- Obama was the only member of the Illinois state senate so radically dismissive of human life that he spoke on the senate floor against a bill mandating care for babies who survived "botched" abortions. Obama's position was beyond despicable; it was monstrous. It puts him so far outside of the mainstream of American culture that he might as well be in his own moral desert.
EVERY ONE OF THESE issues is an indicator of culture. Every one of them is an indicator that Obama himself can't possibly empathize with most of us as we struggle with an economic crisis, because he not only misunderstands how we feel and how we see the world but also has contempt for our very point of view.
"Look," McCain could say. "My friends, we have tough times ahead. But we will survive because Americans know how to pull together and because we know the value of hard work and voluntary community spirit, and because we have a native toughness. We will pull together not because some orator with a smooth, deep voice cites some pie-in-the-sky economic theory, but because we know how to roll up our sleeves, trust each other, and get the job done. My opponent doesn't share our faith in ourselves and our common culture. My opponent thinks bureaucrats in Washington know best. But we know better. My friends, we know better. We know that we don't need Washington to serve as a national community organizer pushing newfangled theories and taxing us to do it; we know that our communities can organize on our own, if only we use our common values to rebuild the real economy of real goods and real services.
"And when we go to church for sustenance, we won't be blaming our country or clinging to our religions out of bitterness. We'll be going there because we know that 'perseverance produces character, and character, hope, and hope does not disappoint us.'
"Hope does not disappoint us, because of our faith -- and because we are Americans."
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