Adam Walinsky made his bones as the late Bobby Kennedy’s speechwriter back in the day and remains an astute (if eclectic) observer of national politics today, with friends and admirers in both parties.
A year ago, we met for a drink and he suggested that Republicans might still have a chance to win this time around in spite of everything. “Everything,” of course, included Iraq, Katrina, the sense that the GOP has lost its way, and President George W. Bush’s abysmal poll ratings.
How, I wondered, did he think that possible? The common wisdom at the time — indeed, up until a few weeks ago in wake of the St. Paul Republican National Convention — was that the Democrats would take the presidency (though it wasn’t certain at the time with whom), come close to electing a filibuster-proof Senate majority, and pick up 20 or so more House seats.
Walinsky predicted that whomever the Democrats nominated was liable to build his or her campaign on an angry partisan assault on Bush, only to realize way too late that, as he put it, “Bush won’t be on the ballot.”
Walinsky, as it turned out, was dead right. Democrats decided early that the GOP candidate could be dismissed as just another Bush and assumed that voters would be eager to reject the prospect of what they began calling “Bush’s third term.” Thus, John McCainJohn McCainMcCain made secret trip to Syria A guide to the committees: Senate Webb: The future of conservatism MORE in their minds became George W. Bush and they left their convention with a message they were convinced would sell.
Their campaign was designed to pit the champions of change against the agents of a failed status quo. Their nominee seemed to be the personification of that demand for change. Barack ObamaBarack ObamaDem senator: Trump thinks LGBT stands for 'Let’s Go Back in Time' Inauguration singer to Trump: Meet with me and my transgender sister NY attorney general: Transgender students to be protected despite withdrawal of Obama regulations MORE went even further, combining ideological and partisan attacks on Bush and his policies with a vague promise that he could simultaneously savage his opponents and move America into some sort of post-partisan era where Democrats, Republicans and everyone else would hug one another and begin solving the world’s problems together.
It is always dangerous, however, to act on the assumption that your opponents aren’t smart enough to react to a strategy that could lead to their defeat. Meanwhile, the Republicans, or at least those directing the GOP presidential effort, were looking for a way to change the game, the debate and the perceived choices voters would be making in November.
Thus, the GOP convention focused not on the past but on the future. Their candidate’s decision to reach down for a talented but obscure Alaskan governor as his running mate changed the public perception of both McCain and the nature of the race. The party of Bush and the status quo morphed almost overnight into a bunch of maverick reformers dedicated to changing everything.
Obama’s reaction to all this has been to turn up the volume, redouble the effort to portray McCain as Bush and demand to know how the Republicans think they can get away with picking a vice presidential candidate who not only isn’t a member of the club, but hasn’t even applied for membership.
The nature of the attacks on Gov. Sarah Palin have undermined the Democrats’ desire to be seen as outsiders and in a strange if ironic way turned them into the perceived champions of establishment politics. Meanwhile, the vitriol being spewed forth to convince everyone that John McCain really is George Bush has stripped them of their hoped-for trans-partisan appeal.
The increased stridency of the assault on McCain is hyped daily by Democratic insiders promising even “tougher” attacks in the weeks ahead. The Obama folks are already getting personal, with ads suggesting that McCain shouldn’t be president because he isn’t as adroit as he should be at the computer keyboard. It’s a message aimed at younger voters in the hope that they’ll reject McCain as an old, out-of-touch Bushite who can’t possibly function in today’s world. The problem is that even as they produced the ad, they knew that months ago McCain had explained in an interview that the injuries he suffered in Vietnam make it physically painful for him to sit typing e-mails.
One wonders what attacks lie in wait. This race is far from over, but the Democrats are doing everything Walinsky predicted they would do to lose in November.
Keene, chairman of the American Conservative Union, can be reached at Keeneacu@aol.com.