Presumptive Democratic Presidential candidate Barack Obama thinks he's found the right script to beat Republican rival John McCain. It's simple. Steal a big page from the GOP script. That means backing FISA, chastising MoveOn for impugning the conservatives' notion of patriotism, reprimanding General Wesley Clark for maligning McCain, a mild saber rattle of Iran and Pakistan for promoting or harboring terrorists, and a deft pirouette on a full blown attack of the Patriot Act. In other words, try to out McCain McCain on terrorism, national security and a military ramp up.
There's nothing new in this. Bill Clinton was the first to snatch the talk tough on security and the military page from the GOP script. He even admitted in a candid moment that critics called this and other GOP friendly positions he took, Republican lite. But he was successful with it and figured other Democrats could be too. In countless speeches and private talks during the 2000 presidential campaign, Clinton sternly warned the Democrats that if they want to grab the White House they must seize the national security and defense issues from the Republicans. That meant doing and saying nothing that stirs public sensibilities and fears on the war on terrorism. It also meant trying to out Bush Bush on his bread and butter issues of the war on terrorism and national security.
Gore, and especially Kerry, took his advice to heart with disastrous results. After he got the nomination Kerry tried to strike the tough guy pose. He even said at one point that he'd launch preemptive strikes against terrorists wherever they were and that he would launch search and destroy missions to ferret out Osama and Al-Qaeda. That fooled absolutely no one. Countless polls showed that the voters repeatedly gave Bush huge percentage margins over Kerry when asked who they thought would do a better job in the anti-terror war.
Kerry still didn't get it. He kept slamming Bush as being, weak and ineffective in fighting terrorism. He touted his military credentials as a Vietnam combat vet to supposedly prove that he would and could be every bit if not more the hardliner on terrorism than Bush.
If Kerry had looked at the polls much closer he would have seen what it really took to beat Bush. Those same polls that consistently showed that if the election came down solely to a referendum on who best to fight terrorism, Bush would beat him handily.
But if it came down to the issue of who would manage the economy better, do better in boosting education, creating more jobs, providing affordable health care, and protecting civil rights and civil liberties, Kerry would have beaten Bush handily.
Obama's following the same dubious script as Kerry did with even less credibility. He's young, is a liberal Democrat. He has been viciously baited on the sound of his name, slandered and lied about as a Muslim, and pounded for allegedly not wearing an American flag in his lapel and not hoisting his hand to his heart when the national anthem is played. In the minds of many suspicious Americans, this types him as inherently questionable on being a stalwart tough guy on terrorism and national defense, and worse unpatriotic. While questions about Obama's patriotism are not an attack point for McCain -- at least openly, his liberalism, judgment on defense and foreign policy matters are.
In the fall, McCain will wave his credentials as Bush did as the man who you'd want to be in the driver's seat if there is a terror attack, and to make sure there isn't and the man who will best resolutely and aggressively fight the war on terrorism. The not so subtle message is that Obama isn't that man.
The polls back up McCain on that claim. A Pew Research Center poll in June found that nearly half of Americans still say that Obama is not tough enough on national security and McCain is. But the same Pew poll also showed that while national security is important, voters still want the next president to focus more on solving domestic woes than foreign policy. That includes a majority of McCain backers. But the numbers that count the most right now to Obama are what the millions of voters think about McCain's signature issue of national security concerns.
Obama fist shaking on terrorism and national security and back flip votes on FISA and other sure to come up issues involving military spending and security matters won't do much to give him an edge in the battle against McCain. McCain and Bush have been at this game far longer than Obama. And the GOP still knows how to do it far better than any Democrat when the watchword is national security. But this won't stop Obama from following the worn script of trying to out McCain McCain on the issue.
Earl Ofari Hutchinson is an author and political analyst. His forthcoming book is How the GOP can Keep the White House, How the Democrats can Take it Back (Middle Passage Press, August 2008).