What McCain should do next

To pull himself level with Barack Obama, John McCain needed to do three things. First, he needed to rally and energize the Republican base. Second, he needed to knock Obama down a few pegs. Third, he needed to seize the mantle of “reformer” and to counter Obama’s claim that a McCain victory would represent a third Bush term.

McCain accomplished the first mission in spades through the selection of Sarah Palin. He accomplished the second, with the help of Rudy Giuliani and Sarah Palin, by subjecting Obama to well-deserved ridicule.

McCain has made progress on the reformer front, thanks in part to Palin. He has not definitively countered the “third Bush administrative” charge, perhaps because he feared that a full list of his past disagreements with Bush would undercut his efforts to rally and energize the base. However, repeated references to his maverick status in the context of his extraordinary biography seem, for now, to have neutralized the charge.

McCain may well have done enough to ensure that he will be in race to the finish. But what can he do in the coming weeks to maximize his chances of pulling away?

In my opinion, he needs to make his case that a McCain presidency will be better for the economy than an Obama presidency. Indeed, whether McCain likes it or not, the need for this case will become more urgent because, with the debates ahead, we’re moving into a phase when the candidates have less control over their message. McCain will have to talk about the economy with some specificity. Then, when the debates are over and undecided voters start to make up their minds, they are likely to be more concerned with their pocketbooks than with whether Obama has been “disrespectful” to Palin.

The building blocks for McCain’s economic case are in place. McCain should explain that a significant factor in the economic downturn is the cost of energy, and that his proposals (including drilling) will better address the high cost of energy, both over the next few years and longer term, than Obama’s. This argument seems like a sure winner.

Drilling doesn’t provide a short-term answer to rising unemployment. So far, McCain has addressed this issue by focusing on job retraining, and that’s fine. However, he should also connect the issue of unemployment to tax relief by pointing to the stimulus lower taxes will provide. And McCain should not shy away from tax relief for corporations. Our corporate tax rate is among the highest in the industrialized world. McCain can argue that lowering it will keep corporations, and the jobs they provide, here.

The Democrats may complain that lower tax rates will mean less revenue and more debt. This proposition is debatable as a matter of economics, and it plays into another of McCain’s strength — his record as a spending hawk. Reducing wasteful spending by itself will not cure our economic ills, but McCain’s record of attempting to do so is an attractive feature of the economic case for a McCain presidency. It also reinforces his status as a reformer and differentiates him from President Bush.

Health care has been high-up on the list of issues in this race, and it plays out as a winner for Democrats. In an economic downturn, the issue can lose some of its force, as Americans focus more on when they will get their next raise and less on whether others have free health care. But the issue remains important. It’s doubtful that McCain can turn it into a winner, but he needs to articulate concretely how his market-based approach will produce progress, while avoiding a government takeover of the health industry.

Democrats like to complain about the “audacity” Republicans display when they attack Democratic presidential nominees for their supposed strengths. These strengths are usually imaginary (e.g., Kerry’s war record — never mind the slanders he directed at Vietnam vets — and Obama’s community activism — never mind its strong radical overtones). It’s time for McCain to attack Obama on another “strength,” the economy, this one real in political terms, but imaginary on the merits.

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