Reihan Salam

Here’s how McCain can beat Obama to the White House

The acclaimed young Republican writer, Reihan Salam, says that McCain can win the presidency if he appeals relentlessly to the non-college-educated white middle class, pursues family-friendly tax reform and stands for global peace through American strength

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In January, I met a friend of mine to discuss his impending departure from Washington DC. He was moving to Chicago to join Senator Barack Obama’s budding presidential campaign. At the time, it was hard not to have an instinctive sympathy for Obama, not least because the Clinton campaign had by that point attracted many of the most loathsome careerists in Democratic politics. Among other things, we discussed the general election landscape. My friend, confident even then that Obama would win the Democratic nomination, was convinced that New York mayor Rudy Giuliani would be Obama’s toughest opponent in a general election. Despite the many skeletons in Giuliani’s closet, he was the kind of candidate who could scramble the map by winning the white vote in the Northeast and the Midwest. In contrast, my friend saw Senator John McCain as the perfect foil for Obama. McCain’s advanced age would highlight Obama’s youthful vigour.

This week, as Democrats swoon over Barack Obama in Denver, one is tempted to think that my friend was right. Obama’s young family has proved to be a truly formidable asset. Michelle Obama, once considered a liability along the lines of the hilariously pompous Teresa Heinz Kerry, came across as a charming and bright mother, a humble and grateful believer in the American Dream. His daughters are, as no sane observer is prepared to dispute, the cutest children in American political history. As for Obama himself, well, the power of his charisma has salved all intra-party wounds.

The other striking thing about Obama is the manic loyalty he inspires. Among many of my friends and acquaintances, a mostly liberal and mostly earnest bunch, the prospect of an Obama defeat would be more than a mere disappointment — it would represent a stunning indictment of America’s national character. Conservatives in Washington and New York nervously joke that an Obama defeat will lead prosperous Obama-loving yuppies to turn to mob violence.

Well then, I for one will have to buy enough tinned food to last me through a minor civil disturbance, because despite the Obamania I believe that a McCain victory is looking more likely all the time. Though we can expect a handsome post-convention bounce for Obama, McCain has fought himself to a tie or a near tie in all major opinion polls. This is despite the fact that, yes, the Arizona Senator is ancient, irascible, and closely tied to perhaps the most persistently unpopular president in modern times. By all rights, Obama should be crushing McCain. Instead, Obama has seemed defensive and cautious. The selection of Delaware Senator Joe Biden as running mate is best understood as an effort to play it safe — to select a veteran legislator who is on record praising McCain, and who voted for the Iraq war. Meanwhile, McCain is the candidate who is growing more confident and aggressive. In my view, what he needs to do now to secure a Republican victory is to begin a revolution in Republican thinking. His party must become the defenders of the economic underdogs.

This notion — that Republicans ought to be the party of the aspirational classes, of those who want a low cost of living to better their long-term economic prospects — is the central theme of my book, Grand New Party. In truth, I think my co-author and I had both assumed that the Republican party would take years to reinvent itself. After a term or two of President Obama, the party would free itself of the taint of Bush. Thanks to a series of missteps by Barack Obama, the same virtuoso who defeated Hillary and Bill Clinton at their venomous best, Republicans have a rare and frankly undeserved opportunity to skip that wrenching ordeal and to reinvent themselves on the fly.

But how? First, Republicans need to learn from their mistakes.

President Bush didn’t just win re-election — Bush defeated Democrat John Kerry by 33 points among non-college-educated middle-class whites, a dramatic 15-point increase over his margin of victory in 2000. Bush had a preternatural bond with this all-important constituency — so much so that attacks against him often backfired. But shortly after his second inaugural address, he fumbled. He proceeded to pursue a domestic policy agenda that, among other things, alienated those very same non-college-educated middle-class whites. It turns out that these voters were not exactly enthusiastic about proposed social security benefit cuts right when private pensions across the country were crumbling. Nor were they thrilled with the prospect of a massive guest-worker programme, which sounded too much like a reward for wanton law-breaking. Coupled with the continued bloodletting in Iraq — an essential part of Bush’s political identity as a war president — and popular revulsion at what looked like a massive government failure in the wake of Hurricane Katrina, not to mention the accumulated weight of various mini-scandals ranging from Jack Abramoff’s influence-peddling to Rep. Mark Foley’s obscene messages to underage congressional pages, the Republican brand became toxic at lightning speed. All the while, the Democratic Left began to adopt a more forthrightly populist economic message.

It’s worth recalling that the most successful conservative leader in the modern West, Margaret Thatcher, was at her best when she was carefully attuned to the mood of the electorate. The Conservatives were very cautious about pushing the privatisation of nationalised industries — until the privatisation of British Telecom proved wildly popular. The same was true of the sale of council homes. Reagan and Thatcher both drew on the work of Milton Friedman and Friedrich von Hayek, yet Reagan slashed taxes and Thatcher raised them. Both Reagan and Thatcher responded to opportunities as they arose. And for all their reputation as diehard ideologues, both proved pragmatic when it mattered most. In contrast, the Bush White House lumbered ahead with its Rove-designed majority-building agenda only to find that it was a majority-destroying agenda — and still they lumbered. That was a costly mistake.

Second, Republicans need to be the pro-family party.

McCain has shrewdly built a reputation as a reformer — but instead of talking about reforming healthcare, long the central domestic issue in American politics, he’s talked about issues that only resonate with a small policy elite. Some of McCain’s pet issues, frankly, are of trivial importance — like the ineffective regulation of political speech, or his short-lived crusade against ‘Ultimate Fighting’. And on big issues, he has taken positions that cut against the interests of American workers — like embracing an expensive cap-and-trade system to address the real threat of climate change. This is simply self-destructive. As Bush White House veteran Yuval Levin has argued, McCain should talk about reforms that would make government more responsive and effective in meeting the needs of American families. Fortunately, there’s a straightforward way for McCain to take this step.

As a rebellious backbencher, McCain opposed President Bush’s proposed 2001 tax cut. He felt it was too strongly tilted to the rich, and that the country couldn’t afford it. Republicans at the time condemned McCain as a heretic, but it is difficult to deny that McCain’s stance was a prudent one. The deficit has swelled ever since, and it is by no means obvious that the fiscal stimulus was deployed as effectively as it could have been. Some tax cut was appropriate in 2001. But it should have been a tax cut that enhanced the economy’s long-term growth prospects, offered serious middle-class tax relief, and that simplified the tax code. Rather than stick to his guns, McCain has since embraced all of the Bush tax cuts, claiming that he would, as president, have them made permanent. Actually, he’s gone even further — he’s also called for a gas-tax holiday, a doubling of the child tax deduction from $3,500 to $7,000, an alternative tax filing system, a cut in the corporate income tax rate, and a whole host of other goodies targeted to key Republican constituencies. Naturally, all of these adjustments will cause a collapse in government revenue, which makes it all the more maddening that McCain insists he’ll be able to close the deficit at the same time. This approach won’t win McCain any votes. The obvious economic sleight-of-hand undermines his brand.

McCain’s best bet is to announce a new tax policy, preferably one based on the National Review senior editor Ramesh Ponnuru’s call for a family-friendly tax reform. Ponnuru advocates a dramatic expansion of the child tax credit coupled with a broader simplification of the tax code. The basic effect would be to remove all but the richest parents of young children from the sting of the heavy taxes. The brilliance of the plan lies in the fact that it doesn’t pit rich against poor, or even parents against non-parents — it simply recognises that raising children is an expensive, time-consuming and very worthwhile commitment, and that it makes sense to ease the burden on this salutary activity. The Democrats, beholden to unmarried urban professionals and others who are unsympathetic to the parenting class, can’t take this route. Republicans can, and they should. McCain is one of the only politicians who could make so dramatic a shift. He already enjoys a reputation for independence from party dogma. This move would recast the Republicans in his reformist image.

Third, Republicans must move beyond Iraq and demonstrate that they are the party of peace through strength.

Because McCain’s national security advantage is so clear, I’ll be brief. The Iraqi government is negotiating a complete withdrawal of US forces from Iraqi soil within the next four years. Chances are there will be some residual American presence in the region, and we have good reason to believe that a sovereign Iraq will serve as a check against, not as a playground for, Iranian influence. The surge strategy, a gamble few believed would pay off, has proved extraordinarily effective. Now is the time for Republicans, led by John McCain, to build on their success. Iraq remains a crucial front in the war against Islamist extremism. But Barack Obama and Joe Biden are right to argue that Afghanistan is where the action is. Nato efforts in Afghanistan have failed to bring lasting security to the region, and we’ve failed to apprehend the killers who masterminded the 9/11 attacks. Who better to engineer the turnaround in Iraq than John McCain, who persistently fought for a better, smarter strategy in Iraq? And who better to deal with conflicts that will emerge elsewhere in the world?

During the Saddleback Civil Forum, the celebrated evangelical pastor Rick Warren asked McCain to name a time when he went against his party’s interests and his own interests to serve a higher cause. McCain’s answer was instructive. He chose the time when he opposed Ronald Reagan’s decision to deploy US Marines to Lebanon on a peace-keeping mission.

‘My knowledge and my background told me that a few hundred Marines in a situation like that could not successfully carry out any kind of peacekeeping mission. And I thought they were going into harm’s way. Tragically, as many of you recall, there was a bombing in the Marine barracks and well over 100 brave Marines gave their lives. But it was tough, that vote, because I went against the president I believed in, and the party that believed that maybe I was disloyal very early in my political career.’

McCain’s meaning is clear. Whereas Democratic partisans accuse McCain of being a warmonger, the truth is that he believes that force should be used sparingly. And he believes that when force is used, it must be used effectively and with a clear goal in mind, a belief that was at the centre of his dispute with Donald Rumsfeld. Barack Obama and the Democrats made great hay out of McCain’s assertion that it would be fine for US troops to remain in Iraq for 100 years provided there were no casualties. What they don’t mention is that in 2004 McCain explicitly opposed the creation of permanent US bases in Iraq. Whereas Obama’s foreign policy ideol- ogy led him to oppose the surge, McCain’s foreign policy pragmatism will make him a more effective commander-in-chief. That is a message McCain needs to get across.

There’s no guarantee that McCain will take any of these steps. And there’s no guarantee of victory if he does. But if McCain can forcefully advance policies that make it easier for working- and middle-class Americans to get ahead, he will leave the Republican party in fighting trim. The next Democratic Congress will have to live up to its grandiose promises — vastly to expand federal involvement in healthcare while cutting taxes, to reduce carbon emissions without punishing coal-producing regions or drivers or blue-collar workers, to raise trade barriers while keeping the cost of goods and services low. And when they falter, it will be a renewed, reformist Republican party that will take their place.