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Viewpoint: McCain the new Sarkozy?

Mark W Davis
Republican Party adviser and speechwriter

mccain sarkozy shake hands
Rebels with a cause: McCain and Sarkozy

In France, Nicolas Sarkozy won by successfully breaking from - and even, in a sense, running against - a president of his own party, the disgraced and out-of-touch Jacques Chirac.

In a similar way, John McCain is attempting to mount a Sarkozy-style "second-stage" succession to a Republican Party that has also come to be seen as disgraced and out-of-touch.

He has a lot to run against.

When things start to go wrong for a political party - as they did for John Major and the Tories in the 1990s - everything seems to go wrong at once.

How this has happened to the Party of Lincoln, Theodore Roosevelt and Reagan is worth revisiting.

The Congressional Republicans could have opted to try to win a permanent majority by devising market-based solutions to healthcare or portable pensions that might have won the lasting allegiance of the American people.

'Populist backlash'

Instead, the GOP leaders in the House and the Senate were content to tinker at the edges of policy.

They aped their Democratic predecessors by using earmarks and other means to reward special interests, reaping huge advantages in campaign donations as a means of holding onto power.

As a result of this change in mindset, the party of probity became the party of disgrace - with more than one leading member in prison or under investigation for various forms of graft.

That there are ample specimens of venality on the Democratic side provides no cover. Voters expect better from Republicans - especially after a series of Democratic scandals that Republicans promised to clean up.

McCain, with decades of spirited and often lonely opposition to pork, influence and back-scratching of all sorts, is the ideal candidate to pull a Sarkozy
So Republicans started with a good start under Newt Gingrich promising to bring reform and business-like efficiency. As a result, when Republicans came to resemble what they opposed, voters came down on them twice as hard when they disappointed.

The result is that Congressional Republicans have neither honour nor a majority.

Republican primary voters, disgusted by the direction their party had taken, selected John McCain in a populist backlash. McCain, with decades of spirited and often lonely opposition to pork, influence and back-scratching of all sorts, is the ideal candidate to pull a Sarkozy.

By returning to their ideals, Republicans selected the one candidate who could actually pull off such a hat-trick.

Political baggage

Two weeks ago, the race against Barack Obama was, then, following a familiar course. McCain had successfully identified himself as a reformer - shedding Republican political baggage.

Obama was set for certain loss. The reasons for this are simple to see.

For decades now, it has been virtually impossible for a liberal candidate to win an Electoral College majority.

The most liberal candidate of all, George McGovern, received 17 electoral votes against Richard Nixon's 520 in 1972. Defeat has befallen other liberals - Adlai Stevenson, Hubert Humphrey, Walter Mondale, Michael Dukakis, Al Gore and John Kerry.

The exceptions to this rule further prove the point:

  • John F Kennedy with his strident anti-communism and tax cuts, won as a conservative Democrat.
  • Bill Clinton won as the candidate of the centrist Democratic Leadership Council, and won re-election after ending traditional welfare and presiding over a surplus.
  • Jimmy Carter won as a budget-conscious conservative, only to lose when he governed as a liberal. Lyndon Johnson won as a successor to JFK.

Had Obama moved to the middle - and chosen a conservative, defence-minded Southern conservative like former Senator Sam Nunn, or even an independent Republican like Senator Chuck Hagel of Nebraska - he would be in a much stronger position.

Instead, Obama chose a dependable, North-Eastern liberal in Joe Biden.

Obama has eschewed "third-way" politics, and stuck to defining his brand of change in terms of simple replacement of all things Bush with liberal orthodoxy on almost every issue.

'October surprise'

If presidents were selected by popular vote, Obama might be able to drum up enough enthusiasm in California, New York and a handful of other populous blue states to win.


Two surprises gave McCain a boost in the polls - Russia's re-emergence as a revanchist power, and the selection of Sarah Palin

The picture is much bleaker for Obama in winning an electoral college majority in which so many states are dominated by rural issues and cultural concerns (like prayer and guns) alien to the sensibilities of an urban liberal.

This was the expected state of play. However, American elections are notorious for turning on an October surprise. This time, we have prematurely had three such surprises in August and September. And they have shaken up this race and made the result suddenly unpredictable.

Two surprises gave McCain a boost in the polls.

The first was the violent re-emergence of Russia as a revanchist power, reminding the American people that we live in dangerous times. It seemed better to trust a crusty war-veteran than the untested, sleek, metrosexual Obama.

The second surprise was an artificial one - McCain's calculated selection of Sarah Palin. McCain's campaign enjoyed great success in baiting Obama into several days of exchanges with his running mate - a project that diminished Obama and knocked him off message.

VIEWPOINTS
Mark Davis, senior director of the White House Writers Group (image courtesy of White House Writers Group)
Mark W Davis is a long-time Republican adviser, a former speechwriter for George Bush senior, and currently senior director of the Washington-based White House Writers Group. This is one of a series of comment and opinion pieces that the BBC News website will publish before the election.

Now the third surprise has come - the near-collapse of US credit markets and an economic crisis widely termed the most serious since 1929. This crisis upsets all that had happened before and returns Obama to his preferred field of battle - the economy.

McCain took the high-risk approach of suspending his campaign and running to Washington.

Today, McCain looks less like Sarkozy and more like Sisyphus, shouldering the burden of an economic collapse seemingly without end.

Does this game-changer open the way for an explicit liberal to make history and take the White House?

Or will McCain be able to fight and win with the economy front-and-centre? McCain might do so if he - and other Republicans - are more aggressive in pointing out how Democrats coddled and protected the private-gain, public-risk model of the mortgage giants Fanny Mae and Freddie Mac that enabled this crisis.

If he can do this, McCain might still pull a Sarkozy.

Or will some new event re-orient the race with yet another sudden, stupendous domestic or foreign challenge?

After all, it is not yet October. There is still plenty of time for more surprises.


Electoral College votes

Winning post 270
Obama - Democrat
365
McCain - Republican
173
Select from the list below to view state level results.


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