Thursday, February 21, 2008

How NOT to beat Barack Obama

Given the distinct contrast in their biographies, there will undoubtedly be a great temptation for John McCain to challenge Barack Obama on the question of character and experience. It would seem to play to McCain's strengths, and to Obama's weaknesses.

Just one problem: that's what Hillary Clinton tried. Michael Medved explains:

With his unexpectedly decisive landslide victory in Wisconsin, Barack Obama has solidified his status as the Democratic frontrunner. His success owes less to his own political strategy than it does to a fatal mistake by Hillary Clinton. At the beginning of her campaign, Clinton made a decision to avoid an ideological battle with her rival and decided to frame the race as a choice between “experience” and “charisma,” between “work” and “words.” In other words she decided to fight Obama on personality, rather than the issues, and in terms of a compelling, appealing personality, Obama obviously wins. Clinton could have won an issues election – mobilizing the broad middle of the Democratic Party and leaving Obama to run to her left. She could have criticized him for preaching surrender on the war, for minimizing the reality of the terrorist threat, for calling unequivocally for big government and higher taxes, for rejecting the free trade heritage of Clintonism. Instead, she insisted that she and her opponent hardly differed on the issues, and it was only a question of who is better “prepared to take over as commander-in-chief from day one.” By emphasizing my “thirty-five years of work fighting for change” Hillary not only made herself sound older, but high-lighted the meaningless, trivial nature of the change she sought and, allegedly, achieved: most Democrats don’t like the results of the last thirty-five years of government policy.


John McCain needs to learn the lessons of Hillary Clinton’s failed campaign. If he tries to emphasize his obviously superior experience and preparation for the job, he’ll lose in a landslide. Obama can easily characterize him as “yesterday’s man” (as he did in his victory speech on Tuesday night) and emphasize his opponent’s advanced age by “graciously” saluting his “fifty years of service.” He thereby makes the point that he himself isn’t even fifty years old, confirming his vacuous declaration that “we are the change that we’ve been waiting for.”

Beyond that, as George Will points out, history provides a particularly devastating comparison of Veteran vs. Novice in the presidency:

The president who came to office with the most glittering array of experiences had served 10 years in the House of Representatives, then became minister to Russia, then served 10 years in the Senate, then four years as secretary of state (during a war that enlarged the nation by 33 percent), then was minister to Britain. Then, in 1856, James Buchanan was elected president and in just one term secured a strong claim to the rank as America's worst president. Abraham Lincoln, the inexperienced former one-term congressman, had an easy act to follow.



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