The primary season ends tonight. As I write this, no one knows whether Hillary Clinton will concede or not—given her record, it seems reasonable to assume that she will not. [UPDATE: She didn't] But it is certain that Barack Obama will be the Democrat nominee. John McCain now knows who he will run against.
McCain hasn’t run much of a campaign thus far—since winning the nomination, he has preferred to let the two remaining Democrats slug it out (a safe strategy). Now he knows who his opponent is, and must start his general election campaign. Being the first candidate to win the nomination has disadvantages (the Democrats got huge amounts of media coverage, while McCain was mostly ignored), but there is at least one definite advantage—there is ample opportunity for him to set the tone of the first part of the election.
McCain must seize this chance. In a bad year for Republicans, he must attempt to steer the election towards the issues on which he is strongest. In an unpredictable election year, key issues may change, but there are two that McCain must focus on: Iraq and Obama’s inexperience.
Many things will change by November. The economy could improve or move into a recession, gas prices could go up or down, and the situation in Iraq could worsen. One thing will stay the same—Barack Obama will be perhaps the most inexperienced many ever to make a serious run for President. It is possible to base a whole campaign around that fact—and McCain should.
It is almost impossible to write about Barack Obama’s Senate career—there’s just nothing there. Obama’s biggest legislative compliment was the Federal Funding Accountability and Transparency Act. While this bill is a good and much-needed bill, which was hardly Obama’s brainchild, as Republican Tom Coburn was the bill’s primary sponsor. With the exception of this bill, Obama has done almost nothing of importance in the Senate.
He has been a Senator for three years—and definitely not made the most of them. Were it not for his race and his silver tongue, he would be considered nothing more than a run-of-the-mill, inexperienced Senator.
Whatever one’s feelings about Senator McCain, it is impossible to deny his experience. He has served in the U.S. government over thirty years. He has made some mistakes during his tenure in the Senate—the Keating Five affair springs to mind, as does the McCain-Kennedy act. But he does know Washington, and he knows the world in which we live—indeed, as one of the key movers of the most powerful nation in the world, he has had a hand in shaping it. Obama, in contrast, is three years removed from a career in the Illinois State Senate, which, while no doubt an honorable post, is not quite suitable for training the leader of the free world.
The other issue which McCain must focus on is Iraq. A year ago, the situation in Iraq looked very, very grim. Some on the right believed that a quick withdrawal was the only legitimate option—and almost everyone on the left thought so. Then came the surge. Now, Baghdad has been pacified, violence in the Anbar Providence is down, and U.S. combat deaths at at the lowest level since the war began. Clearly, the surge worked.
Unfortunately for Obama, he never thought it would. On January 30th of last year, he introduced the Iraq War De-Escalation Act, which was a direct response to President Bush’s surge. Obama displayed a clearly limited understanding of Middle Eastern politics when he declared that the bill was a “phased redeployment that can pressure the Iraqis to finally reach a political settlement and reduce the violence,” even though it is fairly obvious to most people that withdrawing troops isn’t the best way to apply pressure. Obama still believes the surge a failure. Ever since the beginning of the surge, Obama has been dead wrong on Iraq.
Americans are tired of the war, but they still want victory in Iraq. McCain can claim, truthfully, that he knows how to provide it. The best Obama can do is to outline a plan for retreat. If the situation in Iraq continues to get better, the war will give McCain the strongest possible issue (national security) with which to campaign against Obama. (If the situation in Iraq deteriorates, then McCain is finished. He has to try to make Iraq the campaign’s key issue).
When the 2008 presidential campaign started last year, things looked bleak for the GOP in general, and McCain in particular. But now the Democrats have chosen to nominate the most inexperienced (and one the most liberal) candidates in history, and McCain’s Iraq strategy is working well. Given the utter incompetence displayed recently by the GOP, McCain could not hope for a better situation going into the general campaign.