On April 10, 1917, four days after the United States declared war against Germany, former President Theodore Roosevelt met with then-President Woodrow Wilson at the White House. Still the “man in the arena” itching to get back in the saddle, literally, Roosevelt offered to raise and lead a cavalry division to join the fight in France.
A month later, Wilson, rather rudely, turned Roosevelt down. And in September, the frustrated hero of San Juan Hill grumbled, “Rhetoric is a poor substitute for action.”
Yet, tonight, the Democratic Party may well lock up the nomination for a man whose success in this historic campaign to date has rested almost solely on rhetoric and personality rather than on ideas or action. Democrats appear ready to choose a left-wing doctrinaire to lead their party this fall to the frustration of Sen. Hillary Rodham Clinton (N.Y.), who has spent decades preparing for this moment only to have victory snatched away by a younger, far less experienced candidate whose charm and oratorical skills have propelled him to frontrunner status.
Between Sen. Barack Obama’s fundraising and rhetorical skills, the media has all but called the general election for the Illinois Senator. We’ve seen stories of the McCain campaign in disarray (haven’t we heard that before?), Republicans wallowing in doom and gloom, President Bush’s continuing unpopularity along with the war, and a slipping economy.
Still, despite all this bad news and a media whose coverage of Obama is so over the top that it has become the butt of Saturday Night Live jokes, underestimating the tenacity and principles of Sen. John McCain (R-Ariz.) or overestimating the rhetoric and record of Obama is a mistake. A quick look at the head-to-head general election numbers today show a McCain-Obama race as a dead heat.
I’m not suggesting the fall election will be an easy one for Republicans. It won’t, but there are reasons why this race may not be the cakewalk Democrats expect. First, when it comes to some key swing voter groups that will likely decide the fall election, Clinton has shown far more strength than Obama.
She has been particularly popular with married women with children, Hispanics and blue-collar Democrats. While Obama will no doubt pick up Clinton supporters in these groups, McCain’s role and extensive record as a maverick Republican on issues such as national security, the war and immigration put him in a good position to challenge Obama for these voters and rebuild the center-right majority coalition.
Second, McCain’s center-right political ideology is far more in tune with the majority of Americans. While McCain’s more centrist issue views have irritated the Republican base on more than one occasion, Obama was recently tagged the most liberal Senator in 2007 by the National Journal, hardly a Republican mouthpiece.
In its rankings, originally developed by Bill Schneider of CNN, National Journal gave Obama perfect liberal ratings in two of their three categories. Clearly, Obama is not merely left but to the extreme left. A center-right candidate like McCain focused on solutions will have an advantage over an ideologue, particularly with swing voters.
Third, unlike Obama, who talks about change but has accomplished little, McCain has a track record of working, often successfully, for change. And as Brit Hume put it on Fox News Sunday this past weekend, he has the “battle scars” to prove it. McCain was willing early on to risk his candidacy on his public and pointed support for a surge and a new strategy in Iraq.
In a very dramatic way that cost him politically, he took on Bush and called for Donald Rumsfeld’s resignation over the direction of the war, bluntly stating, “I would rather lose a campaign than a war,” making it very difficult for Democrats to characterize McCain’s campaign as little more than a third Bush term.
But the war isn’t the only issue on which McCain has taken on his own party. As head of the Senate Commerce, Science and Transportation Committee, McCain held hearings to investigate the Abramoff lobbying scandal with no regard to where it would lead.
Obama has made lobbyists an issue in his campaign against Clinton, promising to ban them from “his White House.” He should get credit for his work to revamp Senate ethics rules. McCain has an extensive record of ethics and campaign reform far beyond the Jack Abramoff hearings.
But if actions do speak louder than words, then Obama’s attempt to renege on a promise he and McCain made a year ago to accept public funding in the general election campaign ought to give voters pause.
Finally, yesterday Clinton began running a devastating ad showing that Obama, as chairman of the Foreign Relations Subcommittee on European Affairs, which oversees NATO’s role in Afghanistan, failed to hold even one hearing on the Afghanistan war. Given his frequent criticism of the Bush’s Afghanistan and Iraq policies, the issue that forms the raison d’être for his candidacy, Obama had not only the authority but, I would suggest, the responsibility to hold oversight hearings.
Running the ad the day before the Texas and Ohio primaries may be too late to save Clinton, but it gives Republicans a green light and a great opportunity for the fall to portray in the most vivid of terms that “rhetoric is, in fact, a poor substitute for action.”
If Obama is the Democratic nominee and the race centers on personality rather than performance, Democrats will win. But if McCain can demonstrate that he not only has talked the talk, but walked the walk, Obama may learn why Teddy Roosevelt is one of John McCain’s political heroes.