The Magazine

If...

Which candidate will keep his head?

Sep 29, 2008, Vol. 14, No. 03 • By WILLIAM KRISTOL
Widget tooltip
Single Page Print Larger Text Smaller Text Alerts

"If you can keep your head when all about you are losing theirs .  .  . ," then you could be the next president.

When John McCain was young, English teachers everywhere were seeing to it that their charges memorized Rudyard Kipling's "If." McCain seems to have taken the poem to heart--especially over the last couple of years.

McCain kept his head and refused to throw in the towel in Iraq at the end of 2006. He kept his head and defended the surge when other Republicans were going wobbly early in 2007. He kept his head and pushed forward with his campaign when it was being written off in the summer of 2007. He kept his head and made key changes when his campaign seemed to be floundering a few months ago. And he kept his head and took advantage of the opening Barack Obama provided by not picking Hillary Clinton when he made the bold selection of Sarah Palin as his running mate.

This past week, though, McCain seemed to lose his head in reaction to the admittedly head-spinning financial news. First he said the economic fundamentals were strong; then he emphasized that it was a really bad crisis. First he sounded calm and deliberate; then he called, without really explaining why, for the firing of SEC chairman Christopher Cox. First he said we shouldn't bail out AIG; then he said it was reasonable to bail out AIG. First he emphasized that this was a time for bipartisanship; then he unleashed attacks on Barack Obama and the Democrats.

All in all, it was a poor week for the McCain campaign (though the candidate did begin to right the ship with a sensible speech Friday morning in Green Bay). To be fair, the right response to the financial crisis wasn't so clear, either substantively or politically. Obama played it smart by basically doing and saying nothing--and simply seized on McCain's mistakes. McCain's flailing allowed the Obama campaign, which had been off balance for almost a month, to regain its footing.

But that was last week. This week features the first debate, Friday night in Oxford, Mississippi. When an incumbent is running for reelection, history suggests that, by the time of the debates, all but a few voters will have already made their minds up. This year there's no incumbent, and the debates will be watched by many voters (perhaps as many as 20 percent) who remain undecided or have only a weak preference.

Think of recent nonincumbent elections: 2000, 1988, 1976, 1968, and 1960. (I'm counting 1976 as "nonincumbent" because it was the first time Ford was on a national ballot.) There was no debate in 1968, but in three of the other four elections, the debates made a difference: Gore's bizarre performance in the first debate in 2000 allowed Bush to open up a lead which he (barely) managed to hold despite a terrible closing week. Ford's error on the status of Poland in the second debate in 1976 slowed his comeback sufficiently to allow Carter to hang on. And Kennedy's ability to thrust and parry evenly with Nixon (and to look better on television while doing so) may have made the difference in 1960. Even in 1988, the only recent not-close nonincumbent race, Dukakis's answer to Bernard Shaw's question about an attack on his wife probably sealed his fate.

Friday night's debate is supposed to focus on foreign policy. Obama has the easier task. As the less experienced candidate, trailing already in polls on the question of who is more trusted in foreign policy, he wins by holding his own, or coming close to holding his own. The Obama campaign's theory is that if Obama can be reassuringly sound and plausibly acceptable as a potential commander in chief, he'll win the election, given all the other advantages he has this year. Their model is 1980, when a relaxed and confident Reagan sparred comfortably with Carter in their one debate of that campaign, reassured voters he wasn't too risky a choice, and then surged to an easy victory in a year of change.

McCain has a trickier task Friday night. He'll be tempted to tout his foreign policy experience. But claims of wisdom based on experience alone tend not to impress the American people--(viz. Al Gore in 2000, George H. W. Bush in 1992, Jimmy Carter in 1980, passim). Instead, McCain needs to alarm voters about Obama's dovishness--reminding them of his opponent's misjudgment of the surge, for example--and tie around his neck all the stupidities of the woolly-minded Democratic party. He might want to mention in this context Biden's rich career of misjudgments on foreign policy (against Reagan's defense buildup, against the first Gulf war, flip-flopping on Iraq, silly talk on Iran--and more!), and cite the tough words uttered not so long ago about Obama's naïveté and weakness by the woman Obama passed over as his running mate.