John McCain gives the impression of a man running not for president but for commander in chief. He seems more animated by national security concerns than by the drudgery of domestic issues, even though the country’s economic woes are likely to be the central issue in this fall’s presidential election.
The Arizona Republican, who once said economics was not his strong suit, has been struggling to convince voters that he feels their economic pain, which he proposes to ease with more tax cuts, deregulation and trade. While McCain was in Michigan last week explaining his plan for creating jobs, former U.S. Sen. Phil Gramm of Texas, one of his top economic advisers, was telling the Washington Times that we’re in a "mental recession" and that the United States was becoming a "nation of whiners."
By the time McCain disavowed Gramm’s off-message remarks, the damage had been done. As Americans are struggling against rising unemployment and home foreclosures, a bearish stock market and soaring energy and food prices, along comes Phil Gramm to tell them it’s all in their heads.
Barack Obama pounced, saying, "America already has one Dr. Phil, we don’t need another."
Obama keeps telling voters the election of McCain would amount to a third term for George W. Bush, and there’s no denying that a McCain presidency would extend some of Bush’s domestic and foreign policies, from tax cuts to staying the course in Iraq. In one way, however, McCain reminds me more of the president’s father, George Herbert Walker Bush, also known as Bush 41, who in his one term in the White House virtually lopped off the domestic branch of the presidency and focused on his real passion, foreign policy.
The first Gulf War he waged against Saddam Hussein proved to be a winner, on the battlefield and in public opinion, but a young upstart named Bill Clinton spoiled the elder Bush’s bid for a second term. Bush’s military triumph was no match for Clinton’s campaign mantra, "It’s the economy, stupid."
McCain is facing even stiffer political headwinds. He is associated with a failed president, a sinking political party, an unpopular war in Iraq, an ailing economy and a yearning for change. The amazing thing is that, even with the odds stacked against him, national polls show McCain hovering within striking distance of Obama.
In the 1992 election, the press made a big deal out of the fact that Bush 41, a son of Yankee privilege who became a Texas oilman, was unfamiliar with scanner technology used at grocery store checkout stations. It was a cheap shot, but Democrats gleefully argued it showed just how disconnected Bush 41 was from the world of regular folks. Never mind that you are not likely to run into any president waiting in a supermarket checkout line.
Now it’s McCain who is being portrayed as technologically challenged. The New York Times reported recently on McCain’s struggle to read a speech from a teleprompter and his admission that he doesn’t know how to use a computer. Imagine that — McCain is zinged for being more comfortable speaking off the cuff in town hall settings than in reading a ghostwritten speech from a teleprompter. As for his lack of computer skills, I wonder how many computer nerds are capable of flying a Navy fighter jet, as McCain did in Vietnam.
McCain’s bigger problem is that he has an identity crisis with voters.
They are asking whatever happened to the old John McCain, the straight-talking "maverick" who stood up to GOP conservatives on global warming, immigration and stem-cell research and worked with Democrats on judicial nominations and campaign finance and ethics reform.
The Baltimore Sun’s Paul West recently wrote that McCain once had "the most powerful brand in American politics."
He went on: "He was often called the country’s most popular politician and widely respected for his independent streak. It wasn’t too many years ago that ‘maverick’ was the cliche of choice in describing him. But that term didn’t even make the list in 2008 when voters were asked by the Pew Research Center to sum up McCain in a single word. ‘Old’ got the most mentions, followed by ‘honest,’ ‘experienced,’ ‘patriot,’ ‘conservative’ and a dozen more. The words ‘independent,’ ‘change’ or ‘reformer’ weren’t among them."
The McCain we see today is a vacillating, inconsistent and pandering presidential hopeful who is trying appeal to independents, who once doted on him, without dampening what little enthusiasm GOP conservatives have mustered for his candidacy. Obama may be able to get away with offending his party’s liberal base with his flip-flops, but McCain could pay a price if he moves too close to the center.
In refocusing his often-inept campaign, McCain should remember why so many voters, especially independents, were attracted to him in the first place.
(Philip Gailey is editor of editorials for the St. Petersburg Times. E-mail gailey(at)sptimes.com.)