Wednesday, September 3, 2008

Unconventional Wisdom XII: How McCain Can Seize the Creative Middle

By Mark Penn Name

Some advice for John McCain from a moderate Democrat on how to connect with non-Republicans watching at home:

1) Don't call Obama a "young man." It's borderline insulting, and it was the worst moment of Joe Lieberman's speech.

2) Use cards, not a teleprompter. (This is a radical suggestion, I know, but I stand by it. You come off better this way.)

3) Re-up your town hall challenge. It's not too late. Why should we settle for three debates in the final two months?

4) Say something genuinely challenging that the zealots in the hall can react to only with silence. Your brand is courage, so demonstrate it. Don't worry, there will be enough applause lines when you attack big spending, champion tax cuts, sing the song of the surge and the like.

So challenge the party on immigration. Say we need to close Guantanamo. Say you know how much they disagreed with you on campaign finance reform and the gang of 14--but you'd do it again if you could. Return to your principled stand against torture. Catalogue a couple of the ways in which your party has lagged: on tackling climate change, on confronting corruption. Palin will send the base to the moon; you need to bring them back down to earth a little if you want to woo the middle and chart the course to victory.

5) Say something that sounds honest and real about health care. You're utterly tone deaf on what is many Americans' top domestic concern. Your refrain is that you're going to "bring down costs." Say you'll work with Democrats and Republicans to expand coverage to those who need it. If you can't summon even a twinge of your trademark moral outrage about the fact that millions of Americans can't afford a visit to the doctor when they need it, you'll lose millions of people like me.

6) Make clear that you understand earmarks--your whipping boy--are more symbolism than substance when it comes to bringing down the deficit and enormous debt. Most analyses say you're less responsible than Obama in tackling multi-trillion dollar long-term liabilities and borrowing costs. So acknowledge that you understand the enormity of the problem and will demand that everyone make sacrifices to get the country out of hock.

7) Say that you can work with a Democratic Congress, if that's what the people deliver (and they will). Say you expect it will be a sometimes contentious but ultimately productive relationship. But a Democratic Congress unrestrained by Obama will be dangerous. Or at least that's your argument.

8) Define your foreign policy. Sure, Bush's "humble but strong" promise evaporated like a puddle in the West Texas summer. You've surrounded yourself with neocons and those of the "American greatness" school. Is that really your animating philosophy? Or are you going to be tough and realistic in ways Bush hasn't been?

In picking Biden and repeatedly passing on chances to deviate from Democratic orthodoxy, Obama has painted himself as a typical Democrat. In a Democratic year, that may be enough. But it gives you a huge opening to seize the creative middle. Cite not only Reagan and (Teddy) Roosevelt, but a couple of Democratic heroes (and I don't mean Joe Lieberman).

Penn Name is a former Capitol Hill speechwriter


Bill Dunne said...

As a conservative Republican I could quibble with some of the points you raise, but this is generally interesting and on the mark. I think re-upping the town-hall challenge is a great idea, and I for one would love to see how McCain would do with note cards instead of a teleprompter. A glaring omission here: Energy, drilling. Big mistake if he doesn't nail the Dems to the wall on that one.

Anonymous said...

Absolutely right about drilling. I didn't mean this to be an exhaustive list--just a few pet suggestions--but you're correct. It needs to be high on his list.

Anonymous said...

Granted this is a writer's website, so you are approaching McCain from that angle, but I found it disheartening that none of your comments address the substance of McCain's positions. You merely are concerned with the presentation, not with what's inside the package. It seems to me a large part of the problem with the modern political landscape is that there is so much focus on how the candidates come across, rather than focus on the actual policy decisions and their implications.