Tuesday, 12 August 2008

John McCain, the new Barry Goldwater?

Perhaps the only time that the Democrats have managed to turn national security on the Republicans since the Second World War has been in the 1964 election. Lyndon B Johnson, perhaps a more interesting President than any other in modern history, ruthlessly exploited comments made by his Republican opponent, the unapologetically right-wing, Barry Goldwater, about the virtue of extremism (in the defence of liberty.) Here are Goldwater's comments at the 1964 Republican National Convention that created the opening:

Johnson, in one of the most famous election ads of all time, responded with the daisy girl ad:

Johnson, despite his formidable domestic record, in the same league as Franklin Delano Roosevelt, was ultimately responsible for the disastrous escalation of the Vietnam War. That was a war in a far off land that only gradually came home, hooked to the body bags and the trauma of returning US troops. Tony Judt advances a forceful argument that differences in European and American attitudes to war can be explained in part by the cultural difference of having experienced war in your own land.

The daisy girl ad brought war home. In a way, it was an omen of what was to follow in Vietnam; a symbol of the coming loss of innocence. In 1964 though, it warned Americans of the consequences of a bellicose approach to the Cold War and placed those consequences in their very own back yard. It brought foreign policy home and that is the root of its effectiveness.

So could the Obama campaign do a daisy girl on McCain rather like the following clip has done?

There is no doubt that John McCain has said some pretty silly things. Equally, there is no doubt that on foreign policy, John McCain occupies the same space as George W Bush. If anything, there are greater concerns over McCain. However, there is one major difference between then and now.

In the video clip above, Scott Ritter tries to warn us that an attack on Iran would result in some undefined retaliation on a US city. It is unconvincing. If America was still facing the Soviet Union then that risk would be ever present. America is in grave danger of making the world more hostile to it rather than less under McCain but annihilation is not the risk that is faced. In the early 1960s, particularly after the drama and trepidation of the Cuban missile crisis, nuclear war was a real and ever present danger. Goldwater's rhetoric was easily turned back on him.

The same tactic wouldn't work with McCain and would be seen as the politics of desperation. The above video shows why. Its point is an absolutely genuine one but it all feels a bit contrived (stop with the Star Wars music, please!) What's more, to launch such a Johnson-esque attack could undermine Obama's message of change. You can get away with this sort of thing sometimes if you are President but not if you are a challenger candidate such as Obama.

There's no short cut here. Barack Obama is just going to have to demonstrate his knowledge, judgement and temperament to be Commander-in-Chief painstakingly over the next few months. McCain may provide him with more gifts such as '100 years in Iraq' or maybe he will even have a Goldwater moment. If that happens, the media will do the job for him. He should argue, rebut, explain, but above all else keep a cool head and show that he is a leader. That way he will not play into his opponent's hands.

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