THE BLOG
03/28/2008 02:48 am ET | Updated May 25, 2011

John McCain's Strategy to Influence the Democratic Race

Let's say you're John McCain's chief advisor, and your candidate has made an improbable comeback to all but sew up the Republican presidential nomination. While reflecting on your good fortune (or dumb luck of facing a hapless slate of Republican contenders), you may also ask yourself, "Now that we've got this baby in the bag, what's next?" Attacking your only remaining rival, Mike Huckabee, would do little more than legitimize his stubbornly clinging campaign. Of course, there's the need to shore up support among the conservative wing of the Republican Party and prove your bona fides, but that's easily enough done with a quick hypocritical vote against an anti-torture bill. The other thing you might do is wonder whom your eventual candidate will be, whom you want it to be, and most importantly, what you can do in the coming weeks to keep the Democratic race in a state of unsettled disarray and help ensure that the weaker candidate gets the nod.

So, given a chance to affect the Democratic race in his favor, what's McCain's best bet? All the current indicators suggest that McCain is already working from a position of strength against Hillary Clinton, whereas he lags nationally and in key state races against Barack Obama. Senator Clinton's polling disadvantage--whether due to her high negatives or Obama's ability to attract the independents who would otherwise swing for McCain--may be undeserved, given the policy similarities between her and Obama, but it should give all Democrats cause for concern if she is the nominee. It seems that McCain has figured this out, and he's decided to do whatever possible to tilt the remaining Democratic contests in Senator Clinton's favor and to thwart Senator Obama, McCain's greater general-election threat.

As I've mentioned before, Obama continues to top McCain in poll after poll, whereas Clinton faces serious and troubling polling deficits against McCain. As of February 17th, the Rasmussen national Presidential Tracking Report shows Obama leading McCain 46%-44%, while Clinton trails McCain 42%-49%. And, interestingly, in Pennsylvania (a supposed Clinton firewall against Obama), she trails McCain 42%-44%, while Obama leads McCain 49%-39%. In Oregon, the other state with a February 17th head-to-head poll, Obama beats McCain 49%-40%, whereas Clinton trails McCain, 42%-45%. Now, I want universal health coverage, incentives for green industry, and a common-sense economic policies as much as the next guy, but if we don't win in November, the marginal differences between our candidates are going to seem a lot more irrelevant.

Since sweeping last Tuesday's Potomac Primaries, McCain has trained his focus on Obama, attacking him in his victory speech and continuing on in the days following. Almost entirely ignoring Clinton, McCain has gone after Obama on earmarks, inexperience, style, and public financing. In fact, the McCain and Clinton campaigns have been adopting each other's anti-Obama talking points. McCain has taken up the meme that Obama is all style, no substance, and Clinton has happily joined McCain's attack on Obama for hedging on whether he'd accept public financing in the general election, notwithstanding that such an argument is entirely premature since Obama is not yet the nominee. But if you're McCain, and you anticipate that Obama will be your opponent, why not save your best material until Obama has the nomination locked up? Simple: McCain wants to see Obama defeated in the Democratic primary and will attack him in ways that resonate most with Democrats.

The public financing angle is particularly interesting. Although Obama only talked of accepting public financing if he is the nominee, McCain has raised the issue long before the nominee has been chosen. The likely reason: Democratic voters have long bemoaned the undue influence of money in politics, and Obama's initial indications that he'd accept public financing have now run up against the fact that he has been so unexpectedly successful in translating grassroots support into dollars--harnessing the power of the internet and aggregating small donors to create a formidable war chest. Obama's good fortune that his message has attracted voters' money has put him in an unanticipated quandary: should he take the McCain-advocated moral high ground and commit to public financing (leveling the playing field with a less moneyed GOP opponent) or should he embrace the groundswell of financial support that his constituents have provided him? Clinton, on the other hand, never the underdog, always anticipated having such a money advantage that even raising the possibility of accepting public financing would have been unthinkable (although her earlier endorser, the New York Times, has recently called for her to do so).

Of course, regardless of which position Obama would eventually adopt, he would still be on the cleaner side of campaign finance than Clinton: he does not accept money from federal lobbyists, whereas Senator Clinton has maintained her position that she accepts lobbyist money but states that "I'm [not] going to be influenced by a lobbyist or a particular interest group." Even so, she has taken in the most lobbyist money of any candidate, Republican or Democrat. Given these facts, progressives should be more sympathetic to Obama's stance on campaign money--even John Edwards gives Obama the moral advantage--yet McCain's attacks are made with the goal of undermining Obama's campaign finance credibility with progressives. The intended audience of McCain's attacks isn't Republicans or Independents, it's Democrats. McCain is seeing his dream match-up against Clinton slipping away, and is taking action to help resurrect her campaign. Democratic voters should do well to recognize this strategic sleight of hand for what it is, an effort to undermine Senator Obama in order to benefit John McCain's preferred opponent, Senator Clinton.