Obama : McCain :: Reagan : Carter

As I write this, John McCain and his campaign seem to have escaped the potential damage that might have been done to them by Barack Obama’s Magical Mystery Tour of the Middle East.

The visits to Iraq and Afghanistan and the meetings with officials in both places, as well as the appealing snapshots of the candidate mingling with our troops, yukking it up with the Jordanian king and dropping by Israel on the way to Berlin were designed, one assumes, not just to show that the man from Illinois knows where these places are, but to demonstrate that he knows what he is talking about when he discusses international issues and to get American voters comfortable with picturing him not as a candidate, but as someone they can envision as president.

It can be argued that his campaign went a bit overboard in presenting their man as if he is already president, but the fact is that this election resembles nothing so much as the 1980 race between Carter and Reagan — with Obama as Reagan. By the summer of that year, voters were so down on Carter and the Democrats that they desperately wanted to send them packing, but weren’t sure they could afford to do so.

Carter actually led in most polls through the summer and into the early fall because voters didn’t know if they could actually vote for Reagan, who’d been framed by his opponents as a bomb-throwing lunatic who might plunge us into war if he ever got near the button. By fall, however, as the results of the debates and the opportunity to take Reagan’s measure had settled in, voters finally got comfortable with the idea of him in the Oval Office. When that happened, the bottom fell out, Carter was gone and a lot of Democratic senators and congressmen got sent packing along with him.

This year is shaping up the same way, only this time it’s the Republicans voters want to fire. And this time, it’s the Democratic nominee they are not quite sure they can put in the Oval Office.

I would maintain that Obama has a higher mountain to scale than did Reagan, but the challenge is the same. If at any point between now and Election Day voters decide they can actually trust him as president, they’ll give him the job and the close race today’s polls seem to be predicting will turn into a Democratic landslide.

That could have happened this week, but it didn’t. Obama didn’t get much of a “bounce” in the polls when he wrapped up the Democratic nomination, and it doesn’t appear that he got much as a result of his whirlwind foreign tour. McCain’s people can count themselves lucky, and Obama’s have to be worried, because if a successful tour — complete with adoring crowds, foreign leaders ready to accept him as president and press coverage that any candidate would kill for — hasn’t made a difference, they have to be wondering what will.

What this tour and its lack of resonance demonstrated is that this race is all about Obama and that thus far he hasn’t been able to do what he has to do if he wants the sort of victory he’s hoping for in November.


Keene is chairman of The American Conservative Union, whose website can be accessed here.

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