The Times of London today has an interview with Michael Gerson, the former speechwriter for President Bush, now a Washington Post columnist, in which he repeats the argument, frequently found in his recent Post columns, that Barack Obama would be a more formidable opponent for John McCain, after the conventions, than Hillary Clinton.
I have my doubts about this. There’s no question that Obama is a far more charismatic candidate, in person and on TV, than our former First Lady. But as the weeks go by until Philadelphia he’s starting to face the unpleasant truth that having that mass appeal constantly on tap to the public via nonstop CSPAN coverage and 10,000 Youtube clips has its price.
In 1960, apart from paid political commercials – and these started only after the conventions, where national airtime was concerned – JFK appeared on television mainly on the Sunday talking-heads shows and for a few minutes during the half-hour network news broadcasts on weeknights. In doses as small as that, his persona kept from getting too stale. True, there were the Kennedy-Nixon debates, but there were just four of them in a period of less than a month in late September and October 1960, not dozens stretched out for more than a year.
Kennedy’s famed speech in Houston about religion was a singular moment in that campaign. By contrast, it seems possible that Obama’s Philadelphia speech which arose from the controversy involving Rev. Jeremiah Wright will not be the last time he is asked to deliver a “major” address in response to a uproar. If that happens, will the next speech get a reception from the media as (mostly) favorable as the Philadelphia one had, or will it more closely resemble the anticlimatic reaction to Mitt Romney’s remarks last December?
But Gerson does have one solid point. Although McCain’s stand against an Iraq pullout strenghens his appeal to the American electorate, and though Obama’s views on Iraq suggest, among Democrats with a long memory, an uncomfortable parallel to McGovern in ’72, the Republican candidate does need to present a more considered plan to handle the economy in 2009 than has been the case so far. In 1972, after some rocky times, wage-price controls were keeping inflation down and unemployment was at a fairly low level; this worked in President Nixon’s favor. The opening to China and the USSR summit helped, but the two factors most strongly working for the White House that year were the pocketbook and the unwillingness of American voters to give in to Hanoi when a settlement was in sight. In 1992, the Democrats managed to win the election thanks to a perception among voters that Bill Clinton could end a recession which had, in fact, ended by Election Day. (Well, that and the Perot thing.) Thus, it’s important for the GOP to present a well-reasoned economic package to voters.