With less than three weeks left until the election, John McCain finds himself in an uphill battle to win the presidency. Coming out of the Republican convention with incredible momentum and energy, his campaign squandered their competitive advantage by playing defensively. Additionally, the economy then took a turn for the worse. With trends holding true, this caused a strong shift in the polls back toward Barack Obama.
Now playing catch-up, McCain revives his attempt to draw connections between Obama and radical individuals such as Jeremiah Wright and William Ayers. Dunn notes that the President’s selection of his administration comprises one of the most important managerial decisions of a President (1). By highlighting these relationships, McCain may want to cast doubt on Obama’s ability to effectively choose people of character to serve in his administration.
As long as the voters keep their focus on the economy, Obama possess a key advantage. However if McCain can refocus the voters’ attention on character, he may close the gap between him and Obama. The issue of character almost resulted in Bill Clinton removal from the presidency (2). Republicans and some Democrats presented a strong case for Clinton’s removal by linking Clinton’s personal character to his ability to effectively lead. Despite this, two things undermined their ability to close the deal on Clinton’s removal helps Obama today.
First, Clinton’s ability to connect with the media helped prevent his removal (2). Rather than conducting closed hearing, special investigator Kenneth Starr allowed for televised hearings (2). This allowed for Clinton and his media savvy White House to create a favorable image (2). Clinton with the help of his staff presented himself as the victim of a ruthlessly partisan witch-hunt (2). Though Starr won the constitutional battles, he lost the battle of image (2).
Similarly, Obama continues to prove that he possesses an excellent ability to present himself well to the media. Throughout all of the accusations on his character, he presents himself as calm and collected, never appearing rattled by the claims (3). Thus Americans view him as the one being attacked by the vicious political right regardless of whether it’s true.
Second, the strong economy helped prevent Clinton from being removed from office (2). Knowing that it could potentially shake up the economy, Americans proved unwilling to pursue removing Clinton from office. Conversely, with the economy beginning to take a downward turn at the beginning of Watergate, Americans were more willing to pursue character charges again Richard Nixon (2).
With the currently economy resembling what Nixon faced, Democrats relentlessly point the finger of responsibility at President Bush. This type of behavior typically causes people to vote against the candidate from the incumbent party. If a Democrat currently held the White House, the American voters would probably show more concern about Obama’s character. But since a Republican holds office, Americans show less concern about character issues similar to when Clinton held office.
In addition to character, McCain could argue that a “do nothing” Congress helped contribute to America’s current economic mess. If he can get Americans to associate the current economy with the highly unpopular Democratic leaders in Congress, it may reduce some of Obama’s current advantage. This could even cause people to reconsider the character issue.
In addition to his, Americans typically stay away from far left or far right candidates, such as Barry Goldwater in 64 and George McGovern in 72 (3). McCain could try to paint Obama as a far left candidate whose economic policies would further hurt the economy (3). This may too help reduce Obama’s current advantage.
Overall, reintroducing character as an issue in this campaign may offer McCain his best chance to regain control of this election. At the same time, recent history proves that economy trumps character in the eyes of the voters. Despite history, will McCain find a way to make character more important than economics? Or will he use economics to make character more important? Time will soon tell whether McCain invested his political capital wisely.
1- Dunn, C. (2007). The seven laws of presidential leadership: An introduction to the American Presidency. Upper Saddle River, NJ: Pearson Prentice Hall.
2- Dunn, C. (2001). The scarlet thread of scandal: Morality and the American presidency. Lanham, MD: Rowman & Littlefield Publishers, INC.
3- Dunn, C. (2008). Lecture. Delivered October 8, 2008 at Regent University.