Advice to John McCain: Be John McCain

For the purpose of full disclosure, I must tell you that I am a liberal Democrat and a supporter of Sen. Barack Obama for President.

Mr. Obama's positions on the major issues are virtually identical to mine, and I believe he will make a fine president. His successful tour of Iraq, Afghanistan, the Middle East and Europe should answer many voters' questions about whether Mr. Obama can act, talk and look like a president.

However, as I stated in my first column two weeks ago explaining the theme of "Purple Nation," I believe this nation needs a vigorous and open debate on the issues between Mr. Obama and Sen. John McCain -- between the liberal and conservative approaches to solving our problems -- with no predetermination about who is correct but, rather, a chance to allow the American people to focus on the facts and solutions that work. 

For that crucial debate to occur, there must be two presidential campaigns going on, not one. Unfortunately, I have seen, in effect, only one campaign so far: Mr. Obama's.

Where is the "Straight Talk Express" John McCain of the 2000 campaign who won so many admirers across the political spectrum? Then he was smiling and optimistic, sometimes taking on his party establishment, always voter friendly. In the following years, he courageously defended comprehensive immigration reform, rejecting the xenophobic and demagogic voices on his far right; challenged his Republican colleagues in Congress to stop feeding at the trough of hidden earmarks and bridges to nowhere; and worked with Democrats, when necessary, to get things done with minimal partisan posturing.

I know, I know. Then came the John McCain of the 2008 primary season, in which he pandered to the Republican right-wing base to secure the party's nomination. But I forgive him for that -- pandering to the base is something, I'm afraid, we Democrats have to do as well in order to get nominated. (No sanctimony by Democrats justified here.)

In late 2007, Mr. McCain courageously hung in there after his campaign had imploded and seemed to be over. He maintained a sense of humor, he was tough and determined, and he conveyed optimism when everyone else had written his political obituary. (Who else but an optimist could insist that the troop surge in Iraq would work -- which so far has turned out to be essentially correct?)

So what's so different today?

First, what I too often hear in the nightly TV sound bites is Mr. McCain being angry or attacking Mr. Obama. Instead of a likeable and principled optimist, he appears too often as a grouchy curmudgeon. This is not good.

Second, and probably more important, I hear no consistent positive vision or theme for America articulated by Mr. McCain. I know where he stands on Iraq, though I am not quite sure that I understand his exit strategy. But I don't know where he wants to take the country to deal with our huge domestic, energy and structural economic problems.

My perception -- rightly or wrongly -- is that Mr. McCain has the potential to create a positive narrative and theme by reminding voters that he is a Teddy Roosevelt-type of Republican.

I am re-reading The Republican Roosevelt, the award-winning biography by John Morton Blum, Yale's famous history professor. And I am continually reminded of John McCain: Like Theodore Roosevelt, Mr. McCain is a fiscal conservative who sees the need for strong presidential leadership; he is a believer in free markets who also understands that government is needed to preserve competition and to set a level playing field for the average citizen; and he is an environmentalist ready to provide strong presidential leadership -- in Mr. McCain's case, to combat global warming and to achieve energy independence through alternative sources.

Of course I am conflicted, because I don't want to give Mr. McCain such good advice that he ends up defeating my Democratic candidate, Mr. Obama. 

But back to my opening point: This country is in great difficulty at home and abroad. We need to see Mr. Obama and Mr. McCain debating the issues effectively, not attacking each other; sometimes disagreeing, but also sometimes agreeing; and always being honest with the American people about the tough choices we face and the workable solutions to our problems.

If Mr. Obama and Mr. McCain give us that debate and that type of presidential campaign in 2008, then whoever wins, the country ultimately benefits. 

(Lanny Davis is a prominent Washington lawyer and a political analyst for Fox News. From 1996 to 1998, he served as special counsel to President Clinton. From 2005 to 2006, he served on President Bush's five-member Privacy and Civil Liberties Oversight Board.
This piece appeared in the Washington Times, July 28, 2008).