THE BLOG
05/12/2008 12:55 pm ET Updated May 25, 2011

How John McCain Can Rescue the Republican Party

The winds of change have brought Democrats a big advantage in the races for the White House, U.S. House and Senate in 2008. The opportunity for the emergence of a governing Democratic majority is unprecedented.

Democrats have the Republicans to thank for this historic opening in 2008. The Republicans bet their political strategy on suburban and exurban voters who soured on Bush and the war in Iraq after 2004. The over-reach on Social Security in 2005, Katrina, Tom DeLay and losing in 2006 all hurt. During 2007, Republicans suffered a year-long "branding moment" during fights over Iraq and children's health care. The result was that the public has concluded that Republicans are Bush allies and enablers. Bush's own unpopularity has reached record-setting levels--surpassing even Nixon's unpopularity.

The impact of all this has been dramatic. A full 22 House Republicans chose to retire rather than face voters. These retirements, combined with a dozen or so other competitive races, have tilted the House election landscape to the advantage of the Democrats.

The same is true of the Senate. There are as many as 10 competitive Senate races--setting up the opportunity for Democrats to "shoot the moon," winning the White House, a bigger House majority and 60 votes in the Senate in one sweep. It would be very tough but there is a path to 60 seats.

It doesn't hurt that the National Republican Congressional Committee and National Republican Senatorial Committee are the Keystone Cops of American politics. The Republican message is tired and wandering, a litany of anti-Obama, anti-Clinton and anti-Pelosi tirades. Republicans have not stood up to say they believe in anything. The Republicans don't have any ideas or solutions to change America. The GOP message vacuum amounts to political death in a year when 70 percent of the public thinks the country is on the wrong track.

The only hint of an exception to this anti-change message from the Republicans appears in occasional rhetoric--and it is only rhetoric--from John McCain. Make no mistake, John McCain is more of the same: McCain means more of Bush, and more of Bush's policies.


On the war, McCain would increase the number of troops in Iraq and keep them there at least through his entire presidency if not for 100 years. This is Bush on steroids.

On the economy, McCain will bring Americans the same Bush economic policies that have people making less at work and paying more in car payments, doctors' bills and mortgages. And the McCains with their $100 million fortune, nine houses, private jet and $200,000 for house servants are totally out of touch with average families.

And the senator who threw his name on campaign finance legislation has a campaign literally run by a lobbyist (Rick Davis) and another lobbyist who made lobbying calls aboard the Straight Talk Express (Charlie Black). It is no surprise since corporate giveaways are a big part of his ideas--the top five oil companies alone would get some $3.8 billion a year in tax breaks.

But McCain is trying gamely to re-brand the Republicans. You see it mostly in his ads: phrases like "bold solutions" and "big ideas for serious problems." Toss in "straight talk" and the ironic "not tired old politics" closing on a recent ad and a clear picture of an attempt to save the sinking Republican Party emerges.

A change message is McCain's best chance at victory--and the Democrats' greatest threat in the current political environment, where McCain is virtually unchallenged.

McCain has a credible brand with the public, who see him as a maverick and a reformer. If McCain succeeds on his current path, he may be able to use his own popularity to infuse the Republicans with new life and a new narrative--the "Change Republican." The risk is amplified because there are 34 open House seats and 5 open Senate seats. Unlike incumbents, these Republican candidates--who aren't from Washington--could seize onto McCain's "Change Republican" brand and ride his coattails to a Republican comeback. Democrats could lose the House and Senate, and the White House would be out of reach.

It wouldn't be all "change." They'd combine this with the usual scare tactics and terror-mongering--tired old tactics that failed in 2006.

Lest my fellow Democratic partisans worry, I'm not giving away any secrets that the Republican strategists don't know. In the last few days, a strategy memo on this same topic has been circulated by Republican strategists.

There is a big Achilles heel to this strategy. On the issues that the public will judge McCain he is not change. McCain's tempered approaches on immigration and climate change are small bore stuff compared to the defining narratives on the war and the economy. On the issues central to voters, McCain is not change. The media pundits who think the public will view him as a maverick still don't understand this vulnerability.

In many ways the emergence of a Democratic majority rests on whether John McCain gets away with becoming a "Change Republican."


The answer is probably "no" but let this serve as notice to all of us: the ball is in our court.

Update:If you have any doubts about McCain and the GOP considering the "change" theme take a look at Carl Hulse's post on NYTimes.com. Sometimes being the first person to adopt a message isn't the winner--your opponent can hijack the dialog in the media and turn it to his advantage.