The conventional wisdom among Republicans is that since America is a center-right country, John McCain, a center-right candidate, can win the presidency simply by stressing Barack Obama’s record as, according to National Journal, the most leftwing senator last year.
But Republicans should remember this: John Kerry and John Edwards were respectively ranked by NJ as the most liberal and second-most liberal senators in 2004 and came up a mere 118,000 Ohioans shy of victory. This suggests that while playing the “liberal card” is certainly a necessary strategy, it may not be enough in a year when the GOP brand is decidedly less popular than it was in 2004.
Another theory holds that McCain can win by labeling Barack Obama as Republicans labeled Kerry in 2004: as a flip-flopper unconstrained by conviction. But flip-flopping is a non-partisan phenomenon. A better strategy would be to explain not whether but how the candidates change positions and thus to highlight one of Barack Obama’s greatest flaws: his stubborn refusal to admit mistakes.
Consider Obama’s recent acknowledgement of the success of the “troop surge” in Iraq. “In the 18 months since President Bush announced the surge,” Obama wrote recently in the New York Times, “our troops have performed heroically in bringing down the level of violence. New tactics have protected the Iraqi population, and the Sunni tribes have rejected Al Qaeda–greatly weakening its effectiveness.” Obama also scrubbed his campaign website of language critical of the surge. But though Obama now admits that the surge worked, he continues to insist that its deployment was a mistake and even cites its success as justification for his view that troops must leave Iraq as quickly as possible.
Obama’s pick of Joe Biden as his running mate is also revealing. Obama once claimed his time living in Indonesia as a child gave him more foreign policy experience than John McCain has. By picking Biden, who has decades of experience on foreign policy matters, Obama did two things. He revealed that he is sensitive about his own inexperience. But it also allowed Obama not to have to admit to being inexperienced.
Consider also Obama’s lauding of the recent Supreme Court decision striking down the District of Columbia’s handgun ban. Obama has a long record of opposing gun rights and of supporting the D.C. ban. But instead of admitting he was wrong to have supported the ban, Obama praised the court for finally coming round to his view on a limited right to bear arms. Which is curious given that the justices he supports voted to uphold the ban while those whose confirmations he opposed voted to overturn it.
Then there’s Obama’s decision to opt out of the public financing system, which grants $84 million in taxpayer money to presidential candidates. Obama’s decision reversed a long-held pledge to participate. But instead of admitting that he was going back on his word, Obama tried to justify his about-face by attacking his opponent, arguing that the extra money would be necessary to fend off attacks from “outside groups,” and because “we face opponents who have become masters at gaming this broken system.”
And when Jeremiah Wright’s racist and anti-American tirades forced Obama finally to repudiate his former pastor, the candidate never apologized for his lack of perception or accepted blame for remaining in Wright’s congregation for 20 years. Instead, Obama simply said, “the man I saw yesterday was not the man I knew for 20 years.” Obama has used similar refrains to explain away problematic associations with other extremists.
Finally, there’s Obama’s outright lie about his abortion position. Obama has always maintained that as an Illinois state senator he voted against legislation that would have required abortionists to give medical care to babies “born alive” after botched abortions because the law may have impacted Roe vs. Wade. But documents uncovered recently reveal that Obama misled the public and that there was no substantive difference between the state bill and a federal bill he has long claimed he would have supported.
At Rick Warren’s presidential forum, Obama again misrepresented his record by claiming to oppose late-term abortions when he has never voted against them.
Obama’s refusal to admit mistakes contrasts sharply with John McCain, who is known as “Mr. Straight Talk” not only because of his strong convictions but also because of his willingness to admit when he’s wrong and change course. Consider immigration. In 2005, McCain worked to develop an immigration reform bill that included amnesty for most illegal immigrants. He later admitted the error in this approach after traveling the country and talking to people concerned about illegal immigration’s impact on the economy and culture. This experience caused McCain to abandon support for his own legislation, explaining, “I say it is a lesson learned about what the American people’s priorities are. And their priority is to secure the borders.”
Another example is McCain’s change of heart on offshore oil drilling, which he cited at Warren’s church as an instance when he took the wrong position in the past. This shift has come as revenues from sky-rocketing oil prices have been linked to terrorist organizations. As McCain said, “We cannot allow this greatest transfer of wealth in history and our national security to continue to be threatened.”
McCain has a history of admitting past mistakes. In April he acknowledged he was wrong a quarter century ago to vote against a federal holiday to commemorate Martin Luther King. “We can be slow…to give greatness its due,” McCain said. “I was wrong. I was wrong…We all make mistakes. We all make mistakes.” At Warren’s presidential forum, John McCain admitted that the demise of his first marriage was “my greatest moral failure.”
Voters want a president with strong and deep convictions. But they know presidents aren’t perfect, that changes of heart are sometimes inevitable, and prefer a president with the wisdom born of experience to re-evaluate his views when conditions have changed. Most of all, they want a president with enough integrity and humility to admit: “I was wrong.”