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Pulling Away From McCain After the Convention

Obama must challenge McCain on the single issue where he remains strongest. Without the national security and foreign policy legs to stand on, the McCain candidacy goes nowhere.
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The good news for Obama heading into the Democratic National Convention next week is that he continues to lead McCain in the national polls by 45% to 42% among likely voters, according to a recent poll taken by WSJ/NBC. Even more encouraging is the fact that composite polling from indicates Obama maintains a healthy lead in the Electoral College tally with 260 to 191 and 87 toss-ups. The WSJ/NBC poll also points to the fact that voters remain much more enthusiastic about Obama's candidacy, that his fundraising continues to give him a significant advantage, and that he is registering voters in much greater numbers than the Republicans. All of this augurs well for his candidacy heading into the general election.

The bad news, or at least the more paradoxical, is that despite his effectiveness as a candidate thus far, Obama has still not moved into a more dominant position in this election. This is a particularly puzzling reality when one considers the comparatively uninspiring strategy and message McCain has offered to the nation.

The key to understanding the current paradigm most likely rests with the fact that McCain continues to hold a distinct advantage over Obama on issues of national security and foreign affairs. A more targeted WSJ/NBC poll conducted in July indicates that 53% of respondents believe Senator McCain would make a better commander in chief, while 25% said the same about Obama. Similar numbers apply when comparing the candidates on issues related to the management of the war on terror and US policy in Iraq. These polls offer an important insight not only into why the race remains so close, but also where Obama can make strategic adjustments to pull away from McCain after the convention next week.

In the past several weeks McCain has wisely refocused his campaign on major foreign policy matters confronting the nation, while minimizing his rhetoric on domestic concerns, such as the economy, where Obama has the advantage. This strategy was on full display during the recent conflict between Russian and Georgia where McCain sought to bolster his commander-in-chief credentials and move the dialogue in a direction favoring his campaign. Shortly after the conflict broke out, the Arizona Senator went on the offensive. Taking an even more hard-line approach than Bush, McCain issued a statement urging a UN resolution by the Security Council condemning Russia's action, an emergency session of NATO to demand a cease-fire, and to remove Russia from the G8.

This response set the stage for what surely will be the core of the McCain strategy in the general election -- move the dialogue decidedly in the direction of foreign policy and national security issues, adopt hard-line policies that make McCain seem like a strong leader, use fear as a way to scare voters into believing they can only be safe and secure under a McCain presidency, and attack Obama as a candidate who is hopelessly naïve and inexperienced on the nation's foreign affairs. In effect, adopt the same "Rovian strategies" that got Bush elected twice.

But unlike the 2000 and 2004 elections, it is not so clear that these same strategies will work this time around. For starters, domestic ones now predominate over foreign policy ones. The economy, for example, is far and away the issue of greatest importance to Americans in this election. Moreover, voters seem far less convinced after 8 years of failed policies under Bush that a hard-line approach to our foreign affairs is the proper one.

This changing paradigm offers Obama two critical opportunities in the months ahead to pull away from McCain. First, is for Obama to take ownership of a key domestic issue like the economy and "own it." Second, is to challenge McCain on the single issue where he remains strongest, thus diminishing the key rationale for his candidacy. Without the national security and foreign policy legs to stand on, the McCain candidacy goes nowhere. On this second point particularly, there are at least five areas where Obama should focus his attention after next week's convention to make significant inroads on McCain:
  • Get Detailed and Provide Solutions: Obama has run the past 18 months as the candidate of hope and change. But lacking from this message at times have been real solutions that address crucial foreign policy challenges. In the lead up to the general election it was enough for Obama to speak in more general terms, but as the possibility of his becoming president becomes greater, so does the need to put his change message into more concrete terms for the American public. This will be the only way for him to make inroads will voters still concerned about his "inexperience" on foreign affairs.
  • Get Right on the Surge: McCain will no question wield a powerful sword on the issue of the surge this fall. Not only did Obama vote against it, but in responding to questions about its apparent successes, he is quoted as saying that even knowing what he knows now, he still would not have voted for it. The fact is that Obama was right to vote against the surge. No President who has managed a conflict as poorly as Bush deserves a vote of confidence to expand US involvement. But Obama's posturing runs dangerously close to creating the same type of vulnerability John Kerry created in 2004 when he argued very technically that he voted "for" the war before he voted "against" it. The surge is bad politics for Obama and he needs to get clear to the American public that he recognizes the successes of the troops on the ground.
  • Get Tough on Iran: Obama needs an issue on foreign policy where he seems less nuanced and more "tough." Iran represents the best opportunity for him to do this not only because a tough policy is the right one, and because Obama already agrees with that position, but also because it will help him shore up his base within an important constituency -- Jewish voters -- in key states such as Florida. Obama's recent trip to the Middle East made one thing clear -- that his administration, like McCain's will not accept a nuclear Iran. Yet despite this emerging consensus among the candidates, Obama has failed to make it a centerpiece of his campaign, thus allowing a nagging perception to perpetuate within the Jewish community that McCain will ultimately be better for Israel than Obama. If Obama wishes to continue to make inroads with Jewish voters in key states, he must work to better inform them of where he stands on such critical issues. This is one area where smart policy is smart politics too.
  • Go on the Attack - McCain's judgments on foreign policy have been cut from the Bush-era model and its policies of the past 8 years. But recent shifts by the Bush team away from its own foreign policy orthodoxy are now demonstrating, in stunning fashion, the intrinsic weaknesses of this model. Reversals on a timetable for withdrawal from Iraq, the need for redeployment to Afghanistan, dialogue with Iran, and active negotiations in North Korea, as just a few examples, seriously undercut the intellectual basis not only for the Bush worldview, but also McCain's. Obama must go on the offensive to expose this and to better convince Americans that we are in the grips of a failed foreign policy theory that will only be continued and perpetuated by McCain to determinant of US interests abroad.
  • Deploy Your VP Wisely: if conventional wisdom stands up, Obama will pick a VP this week with strong foreign policy and national security credentials. Whomever is chosen, Obama must deploy them as a persistent and effective weapon against McCain on foreign affairs and national security. The VP candidate must also work to assuage concerns among voters about Obama's perceived "youth and inexperience." Just as Cheney made Bush seem more palatable to American voters who were worried about his ability to manage complex policy issues, so too must Obama's VP convince voters that he has a strong team around him to make up for any potential deficiencies of inexperience he might have on foreign affairs.