Late last week, John McCain unveiled what his campaign described as its “first general election ad.” The 60-second clip introduces McCain as “the American president Americans have been waiting for.”
The American president?
I was unaware that there was any confusion about his nationality. I suppose that we could count a minor controversy that generated buzz earlier this year when the fact that McCain was born in the American-controlled Panama Canal Zone led some to question whether he meets the constitutional requirement that the president be a natural-born citizen. The issue faded after a few days, and its reach never extended beyond the restricted circle of obsessive political junkies.
I would like to believe that this ad is a reaction to the Panama question, but that is too farfetched to be plausible. And there unfortunately is a much more credible explanation for his emphasis on the word “American,” one that requires us to believe that the Republican Party is looking to build fishy contrasts with Barack Obama and draw on the insidious smear campaigns that are circulating online about the probable Democratic nominee.
Given the recent track record of the Grand Ol’ Party, exemplified by the Rovian tactics used to question the loyalties of Max Cleland and John Kerry in 2002 and 2004 respectively, such suppositions hardly demand a leap of faith.
Yet, Obamanism informs us that we are ideologically stagnating in 1990s partisan battles if we disbelieve that a new type of politics can emerge — one in which a nonpartisan consensus can be built around pragmatic solutions.
Meanwhile, in the real world in which the Right beats up Democrats who are too busy drifting rightward to notice, John McCain is running his first general election ad.
Obama is never referenced, but contrasts are subtly drawn. “Where has [McCain] been? Has he walked the walk?” asks the ad, before showing images of McCain’s captivity as a prisoner of war. A central argument of the upcoming Republican campaign will be that McCain’s life experiences has given him the strength to lead and the resolve to stare down America’s enemies.
McCain is looking to drag the election onto the nationalist turf. Yesterday, he campaigned in Meridian, Miss., where he served as a flight instructor; tomorrow, he will return to his alma mater, the U.S. Naval Academy, and stump in Annapolis, Md. McCain’s goal is to stay away from issues and to focus on life stories and symbolism to show that he is a more solid — and a more American (whatever that means) — leader.
Interestingly, McCain’s strategy is closer to Obama’s than to Clinton’s. A symbol-based campaign is the last thing Hillary wants in the primary race. While she downplays Obama’s ability to lead the country and highlights her experience, her clear goal is to keep the election away from the terrain of process and character and focus it on policy questions that remain as dry as possible.
Obama, on the other hand, likes to portray his own life as a symbol of the American story; he frames his candidacy as the opportunity to fulfill America’s promise. But running on character makes a candidate more vulnerable to ad hominem attacks of the sort Republicans are sure to employ. Considering the hints in McCain’s first ad, the conservative hysteria around the Reverend Wright and the ongoing effort to portray Michelle Obama as unpatriotic, there is reason to fear that this general-election campaign will dig up the worst underground smears and will make 2004 look like a love parade.
But McCain is sowing the seeds of his own demise by drawing so much from his military history. In 2004, John Kerry’s absurd attempt to mitigate his criticism of Iraq with glorious stories of Vietnam heroism paved the way for the swift boat ads. This year, McCain’s strategy will make it that much more difficult for Republicans to avoid voter anger over the disastrous Iraq war.
After Bush’s two terms, McCain should be running away from his hawkishness rather than embracing it. His myopic confidence that his life story will counter the unpopularity of his war-mongering will only make the coming Democratic ads featuring McCain professing his interest in staying in Iraq for 100 years while bombing Iran more damaging.
The GOP’s conviction that it can once again win an election as the national-security party and mock opponents as weak and unpatriotic is the Democrats’ best hope to win back the White House.
Daniel Nichanian is a senior in Branford College. His column usually runs on alternate Mondays.