John McCain always likes being the underdog, he has told us. That’s good — because he’s not leading the presidential race. Depending on your favorite poll he’s either behind or essentially tied. And we are in the midst of a financial meltdown which most voters blame on his Republican Party.
That makes the first presidential debate — whenever and wherever it occurs — critical. Although the topic is foreign policy, it is probable that the current financial crisis will come up. And McCain is unlikely to have a better opportunity to make his argument to the American people that only he is ready to lead in troubling times.
McCain needs to do several things.
First, he must finally convince voters why the surge matters and why it should be the prism by which they evaluate the candidates. Iraq has receded from the headlines and Barack Obama has sufficiently fudged up his position. Recently he seemed to concede that the surge had after all succeeded beyond anyone’s “wildest dreams” — except McCain’s, presumably. If the issue is simply “I was right; he was wrong” the voters may not be moved.
But McCain’s argument is more fundamental: Obama never did and still doesn’t understand the gravity of a potential defeat to al-Qaeda. McCain will claim that Obama was unable and unwilling to give General David Petraeus the support needed to achieve victory. Call it a failure of will or a failure of imagination, but Obama proved, McCain will argue, that he won’t do what is necessary in the war on terror. Obama’s statement this summer that he would not even in retrospect have supported the surge epitomizes the extent to which his national security judgment is compromised by fidelity to his left-wing base. In short, McCain needs to argue that Obama can’t be trusted to complete the job in Iraq and to pursue victory elsewhere.
Next, McCain would do well to remind voters of Obama’s troubling performance this summer when Russia invaded Georgia. Obama’s initial tour de force of moral equivalence was followed by a series of statements which seemed to place excessive and unrealistic faith in the UN Security Council, where Russia holds a veto. Again, McCain’s message must be that in the face of imminent danger Obama blinks.
Finally, McCain needs to convince the audience that both members of the Democratic ticket lack good judgment — the very thing that every president requires to deal with the “unknown unknowns,” as Donald Rumsfeld termed the unexpected dangers that we don’t even conceive may exist. Biden’s ludicrous plan to partition Iraq and Obama’s equally silly plan to meet unconditionally with Ahmadinejad will be fodder in this department.
In general, McCain needs to show his own calm forcefulness and persuade voters that Obama is not commander-in-chief material. Hillary Clinton’s “3 a.m.” ad will likely be invoked. In that regard, McCain might do well to press Obama directly on his prior failings and actually demonstrate that Obama doesn’t react well under pressure, even in a debate setting. If Obama appears uncertain, defensive, or off guard, McCain will claim an invaluable victory.
What about Obama?
His position is not unlike Ronald Reagan’s in 1980. The public then wasn’t sure Reagan could be trusted and suspected he might be trigger-happy. Although Obama suffers the opposite concern — i.e., voters are concerned he is insufficiently resolute — the same dilemma exists for Obama, who lacks both military and foreign policy experience: how does Obama satisfy the concerns of voters that he is not ready for prime time?
First, he would do well to place himself within the mainstream of American foreign policy. He should explain what military actions in the past he favored — e.g., the first Gulf war — and his willingness to defend our obligations to NATO and Israel. It sounds quite basic, but after two years of running left he needs to convince the voters he’s a boring, middle-of-the-roader on national security. In this regard it might help to throw out a name or two — Senator Richard Lugar or former Senator Sam Nunn — he would pick as secretary of state.
Second, he needs to explain himself on the surge. “I didn’t believe General Petraeus when he said it would work” or “I still wouldn’t have done it despite the results” are not going to cut it. And after cleaning that up he would be smart to urge voters to look to the future and communicate in some convincing and detailed terms how he plans on succeeding in Afghanistan.
Third, he needs to explain how he will deal with the world’s rogue states. If “smart diplomacy” doesn’t work, what does he plan to do to prevent Iran’s acquisition of nuclear weapons and to contain North Korea? What will he do to prevent Russia from marching through other former Soviet states? He’s told voters that he will talk to anyone, anytime, but he would do well to “walk it back” and assure them that he is not impervious to the downside of providing terror state leaders with a propaganda platform. He would be wise to call out a few of the world’s dictators and announce that they won’t in fact be coming for tea at the White House unless they respect international norms of conduct.
And while McCain must appear calm and reasoned, Obama needs to show some fire and some spine. If he allows McCain to push him around, voters will quickly conclude that foreign enemies will be able to do the same.
The stakes are high for both candidates. It may be McCain’s last chance to change the dynamics of the race and Obama’s last point of vulnerability. After two years of campaigning, each candidate’s fate may rest on those ninety minutes of intense scrutiny. Now that is must-see TV.