The Pitfalls of McCain’s Experience Argument

The Democratic primaries witnessed a fundamental question of change versus experience. The electorate could be neatly sliced into those two categories, with each bloc overwhelmingly supporting one candidate. Hillary regularly pulled over ninety percent of voters deeming experience the most desired quality in a candidate; in other words, she essentially maxed out among “experience” voters. To then bolster her numbers, Hillary was forced to either gain ground among “change” voters or shift people’s top priority to experience. Neither happened. Hillary failed to crack the conundrum, which ultimately toppled the campaign.

Translate Hillary’s enigma to the general election. McCain will run a reincarnation of her strength and experience campaign (with outside groups serving up the unpatriotic salsa). Thus, he will likely near or surpass Hillary’s numbers among “experience” voters. But as the primaries revealed, a candidate cannot build a winning coalition solely through the backing of “experience” voters. To broaden his support, McCain holds the same two options that fatally vexed the Clintons.

Consider the first option: improving his standing among “change” voters, a herculean task when tied to an unpopular president and party. McCain has publicly broken from the administration on several issues, hoping his departures from Bush orthodoxy will produce a newsreel of Sister Souljah moments. However, his maverick aura fades on the two crucial issues, Iraq and the economy. This lethal duo is driving the electorate’s disaffection with Republicans, yet McCain firmly adheres to party doctrine on matters of guns and butter.  The Democrats hope to amplify this conformity by tying McCain and Bush in an inextricable knot. 

The other option calls for persuading voters to emphasize experience over change. Bluntly, this requires fear-mongering, a tactic the Republicans have exercised successfully in the past. However, Obama appears as an effective messenger to combat these panic-based ploys. In the appeasement spat this past week, Obama forcefully declared:

They aren’t telling you the truth. They are trying to fool you and scare you because they can’t win a foreign policy debate on the merits. But it’s not going to work. Not this time, not this year.

The aggressive push-back reframes the issue: casting the Republicans as policy-deficient while branding their playbook old politics. The former seizes upon the overwhelming majority (82% of the public) that believes the country is on the wrong track, while the latter fits into Obama’s central campaign theme. Also, repeated use of fear-mongering has blunted its effectiveness, evidenced by the Republicans’ slipping national security advantage since 2006.

Herein lies McCain’s challenge ahead.  A burning desire for change presently exists, and Obama fulfills that want.  McCain, slapped with an “R”, cannot significantly encroach into Obama’s territory.  The appetite for experience exists, but needs to be whetted further for McCain to have a chance at winning.  McCain must run a campaign of convincing, one emphasizing the need for experience.  His campaign’s success hinges on this message’s persuasiveness.   

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