Despite Wild Swings, Election’s Underlying Themes Remain

Posted September 9, 2008 at 4:03pm

The past two weeks should be sobering to anyone trying to make linear projections about the 2008 presidential campaign — whether from a perspective before Sen. John McCain (R-Ariz.) picked his running mate or after. The selection of Alaska Gov. Sarah Palin (R) reminds us that events can turn our political process on a dime. The only safe projection is that there will be more turns of course, perhaps caused by the intensive post facto vetting of Palin, perhaps by an external event akin to the Russian invasion of Georgia.

[IMGCAP(1)]Still, despite the wild swings of emotion and fortune, the underlying fundamentals of the election are still the same. We still have an electorate very unhappy with the status quo. This election still, in my view, resembles 1980, and it is still going to be shaped to a considerable degree by whether, in the view of a majority of voters, Sen. Barack Obama (D-Ill.) clears the presidential bar of acceptability and proves he is not a risk.

Within that parameter, to be sure, McCain has altered the entire dynamic of the fall campaign. He has moved away from a more passive strategy based on being the safe harbor for voters uneasy about Obama; now he is trying to play on the “change” turf, sacrificing some of the safety he represented by gambling big on a running mate he had met once, whose vetting was the equivalent of being waved around the metal detectors (compared to Minnesota Gov. Tim Pawlenty’s full body-cavity search), and who has not even a passing acquaintance with foreign policy or Washington politics.

But so far, the big gamble has meant big payoffs. McCain has energized his own party’s base, which was desultory at best before the announcement. He has changed the overall conventional assessment of the race from a nearly done deal to a wide-open contest, which itself has big pluses, including more money and more volunteers. He has given his ticket more distance from the Bush administration without changing a single position or openly dumping on the president (other than through an earlier ad saying that we are worse off now than we were four years ago). He has moved the states in play from a situation where nearly all except Michigan were won by Bush in 2004 to one where several Kerry states are on the list. He has also managed to gain real traction on the energy issue.

Nonetheless, Obama retains some real advantages. He will have more money, especially more money that his campaign can control directly, thus creating a unified message and more agility in moving cash to and from states as circumstances warrant. He has an edge in organization and get-out-the-vote efforts that will be tough for the GOP to match in fewer than 60 days (although there will now be a Christian conservative ground game in play). He still has more targets of electoral opportunity than McCain, who is still playing catch-up in several key battlegrounds.

McCain will still have trouble detaching himself from his support for Bush economic policies. And he will have more trouble retaining some of the independents and Democrats who in the past embraced the notion that McCain was a moderate, not a genuine social conservative, given the GOP platform (which on abortion removed even the exception for the life of the mother) and given his running mate’s social positions.

The next month in Congress will have some role in the campaign dynamic. Can the majority Democrats dance around the drilling issue, or even gain traction of their own with a vote on a plan including offshore drilling that many Republicans will reject because it includes making oil companies pay for research and development of alternative fuels? Will there be a bipartisan, balanced “Gang of 10” energy plan in the Senate, including conservative stalwarts like Sen. Saxby Chambliss (R-Ga.), that Obama will embrace and McCain will vote against? Can Senate Democrats find a way to avoid an up-or-down vote on extending the moratorium on offshore drilling without resorting to a parliamentary ploy like filling the amendment tree that would result in a Republican explosion and a meltdown in the chamber?

Can the majority Democrats put their GOP counterparts on the defensive over new stimulus plans to deal with the continuing mortgage crisis and the increase in unemployment? Can they help Obama frame the economic issue not as a war against earmarks, or as a tax increaser vs. a tax cutter, but as a question of whether voters want to opt for a continuation of Bush economic policies? Can they do anything that will counter the so-far persuasive pitch of McCain and Palin that they will pursue a scorch-and-burn policy against the bozos in Washington?

The presidential contest will not be won or lost based on what Congress does or does not do in September. The presidential and vice presidential debates will matter much more. But Congress can make a real difference in how the issues are framed and how voters view the world as they approach their choice in November.

Norman Ornstein is a resident scholar at the American Enterprise Institute.