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It's the Economy, Stupid

McCain’s victory speech in South Carolina: a case study in how not to court general election voters

After winning the New Hampshire primary two weeks ago, John McCain stumbled over a lengthy speech that sounded like it had been cobbled together from several drafts by different writers. Nonetheless, he communicated a message that cuts to the core of his character: the importance of serving “a cause greater than self-interest.”

In his victory speech after the South Carolina primary Saturday night, McCain confidently delivered a coherent and tightly written text designed to appeal to his party’s conservative base. The message may serve him well as he campaigns to clinch the Republican nomination, but, if he keeps it up, it will kill his chances in a general election; it’s precisely the message that the country doesn’t want to hear as it sinks into a recession.

If the Republican coalition consists of national security hawks who are already drawn to McCain, values voters who favor Mike Huckabee, and economic conservatives who are up for grabs, McCain’s victory speech was aimed at the last group who are, after all, the party’s longest-standing supporters. Yes, he declared that government should “keep this country safe from its enemies” and “respect our values because they are the true source of our strength.” But the most passionate passages in his speech, and the ones that set him apart from his rivals, argued for an extreme economic conservatism; his “rugged individualist” rhetoric might have been used by Herbert Hoover, Alf Landon, or Robert A. Taft..

Thus, McCain denounced “a heavy-handed government that spends too much of their money, and tries to do for them what they are better able to do for themselves,” adding, “We want government to do its job, not your job; to do it better and to do it with less of your money.” Half-heartedly, he acknowledged, “We are facing challenging economic times” and patronized “Americans who fear they are being left behind in the global economy.” Then he lectured those who fear losing their jobs, their homes, and their health care that “we are the captains of our fate.” Sounding like a Democrat’s caricature of a Republican, McCain concluded: “We can overcome any challenge as long as we keep our courage, and stand by our defense of free markets, low taxes, and small government that have made America the greatest land of opportunity in the world.”

As McCain learned in Michigan last week, such rhetoric does not work with economically anxious voters, even those who vote in Republican primaries. In a state that McCain had carried in 2000, native son Mitt Romney won with a corporatist conservatism that promised to bring together business, government, and even the dreaded unions together to help save the auto industry. Meanwhile, Mike Huckabee did surprisingly well with his populist appeal and a vague promise of a “new ... fair deal” for the American people, thereby recalling Franklin D. Roosevelt and Harry S. Truman in one phrase. For his part, McCain offered economically anxious voters in Michigan little more than his self-styled “straight talk,” including his insistence that “some of those [auto industry] jobs just aren’t coming back.”

As McCain prepares to campaign nationally, first among Republicans and then with the entire electorate, he’ll find that economically hard-hit Michiganders think and vote like most Americans. A recent Washington Post–ABC News poll found that nearly eight in 10 Americans think the country is “pretty seriously” off track, and only 21% believe they and their families are "getting ahead" financially. As early as last October, a Los Angeles Times poll found that only 36% of Americans wanted to stimulate the economy by "returning money to the taxpayers through tax cuts," while 52% favored increased public spending on such issues as "health care and education." Even among GOP voters, a growing number of socially conservative working class whites--the "Sam’s Club Republicans," in the phrase taken mainstream by Ross Douthat and Reihan Salam--favor a more active government role in the economy.

In fact, McCain has positioned himself to the right not only of his two leading rivals for the Republican nomination, but also of the incumbent Republican president, George W. Bush, who has just called for a $145 billion economic stimulus plan. Indeed, when McCain attacks a heavy-handed, free-spending government, he is describing the status quo after seven years of a Republican presidency and 12 out of the past 13 years when the Republicans controlled both houses of Congress.

So how much of an economic conservative is McCain presenting himself as being? In South Carolina, he described himself as having been "a foot soldier in the Reagan Revolution." But, coldhearted as Reagan’s policies might have been, he almost always advocated them warmheartedly, presenting himself as a working class kid who had voted Democratic, worshipped FDR, and headed a union. For instance, in a radio address during the 1982 recession, Reagan recalled: "I have a special reason for wanting to solve this [economic] problem in a lasting way. I was 21 and looking for work in 1932, one of the worst years of the Great Depression. And I can remember one bleak night in the thirties when my father learned on Christmas Eve that he'd lost his job. To be young in my generation was to feel that your future had been mortgaged out from under you, and that's a tragic mistake we must never allow our leaders to make again." McCain’s suffering as a prisoner in North Vietnam reassured voters that, for all his hawkishness, he understands the hardships of war. But, unlike Reagan, there is little in his life experience or in his public utterances that reassures anxious Americans that he understands their economic insecurities.

By asking anxious Americans to pull up their socks, stop complaining, and blame big government for their ills, McCain sounded less like a foot soldier in Reagan’s victory in 1980 than cannon fodder. Reenacting Barry Goldwater’s futile assault against the role of government in stimulating the economy and relieving working families’ hardships is no way to win the presidency in 2008.

David Kusnet was chief speechwriter for former President Bill Clinton from 1992 through 1994. His new book, Love the Work, Hate the Job: Why America’s Best Workers Are Unhappier than Ever will be published in June by John Wiley and Sons.

By David Kusnet