Expect Quiet Issues to Come to the Fore

Andrew E. Busch

September 1, 2008

Now that the major party conventions are over, one can see the outlines of a number of issues, heretofore largely unexamined or under-examined in the campaign, that have the potential of bursting onto the scene and making a big impact. Overall, there seem to be more of these issues at John McCain’s disposal than at Barack Obama’s.

Two issues that could help Obama if they are interjected more fully into the campaign would be McCain’s temperament and the Keating Five scandal of days past. McCain, of course, is alleged to possess a volcanic temper and a short fuse. Thus far, discussion of this shortcoming has been muted. If Obama continues to trail McCain into October, expect these allegations to become part of the campaign and media discourse. Likewise, a scandal in McCain’s distant past has yet to make a serious appearance. In the late 1980s, McCain was one of five Senators to be investigated by the Senate Ethics Committee for inappropriate ties with a shady S&L operator, Charles Keating. He was ultimately cleared of wrongdoing, but was held to have exhibited “poor judgment.” As McCain gains traction with his argument that he is the real “change” candidate in the race, Obama and his allies will have ever-greater incentive to resurrect the Arizonan’s connection to this scandal.

A number of under-examined or surprise issues also hold promise for Republicans:

  • Having already made gains on the issue of oil exploration and drilling, McCain now has perfect cover in the form of Alaska Governor Sarah Palin to shift his position toward allowing drilling in the Alaska National Wildlife Refuge if he wishes to do so. Such a shift would accentuate the contrast on energy between the two tickets.
  • The Boumediene v. Bush case decided by the Supreme Court could easily become a major theme of the McCain campaign. In that case, decided by a 5-4 margin, the Supreme Court declared that enemy combatants captured on the field of battle must be afforded habeas corpus protections like criminal defendants. McCain vehemently opposed the decision; Obama supported it. It has the potential to pay big dividends to McCain, since it allows him to make his constitutional argument (curtail the power of the out-of-control judiciary) and his national security argument (fight the terrorists with every tool) simultaneously.
  • Obama has long run on his supposed capacity to bridge the “red state-blue state divide.” Yet his position on abortion is even more uncompromising than John Kerry’s, Al Gore’s, and Bill Clinton’s. The extreme character of the current Democratic position on abortion is only starting to dawn on voters concerned with the issue. Joe Biden and Nancy Pelosi have infuriated Catholic Bishops with their recent mischaracterizations of the Church’s doctrine on life; Obama has pledged to seek repeal of the partial birth abortion ban, which is supported by about two-thirds of the American people; and the Democratic platform has now excised the Clinton-era language calling for abortion that is “safe, legal, and rare.” McCain will not stress this issue, though he will point it out in debates. Others will make it an issue, and it will almost certainly hurt Obama.
  • While Obama’s association with Bill Ayers has simmered beneath the surface for months, it may well blow into the open soon. Obama’s problem here may be twofold: the fact that he long associated with an unrepentant traitor and terrorist may be accentuated if it turns out, as it may, that he deceived reporters about how close that relationship was. Again, McCain’s campaign has already said it will not make Ayers a key issue in the race, but ongoing archival research by Stanley Kurtz and others may make it increasingly difficult for the mainstream media to continue downplaying the issue.
  • Not least, Obama’s affinity for European sensibilities has already hurt him, but McCain has yet to close the loop on the argument. Given Obama’s social-democratic tendencies, McCain can plausibly argue that this election will go a long way toward answering this question: Will America remain a unique polity committed to individual liberty, limited government, and a large sphere for private civil society? Or will it become just another European democratic socialist state with confiscatory taxation, overweening government, and a dependent and enervated people? So far, McCain has used two themes, experience and reform. Raising people’s sights to the larger philosophical stakes in the race could be a third.

All in all, both sides have some issues that could cut against the other and that have yet to be fully, or even significantly, activated. A key question of the next eight weeks will be which of them are activated, and just exactly how deep they cut.

Andrew E. Busch is a Professor of Government at Claremont McKenna College and an Adjunct Fellow of the Ashbrook Center.