Monday, August 18, 2008

Can McCain's performance at Saddleback Church hurt him?

The mainstream media seem to agree the major difference between Barack Obama and John McCain at Rick Warren's Leadership and Compassion Forum was a difference of style, Obama cast as the more meditative and nuanced candidate, and John McCain ans the blunt, "straight-talking" candidate.

At first you might think the event was a "no-brainer" for John McCain: he needs to motivate a lackluster Republican base if he wants to win in November. But the problem with that, has has to do with the fact the GOP base today does not look the same as it did 4 years ago.

A Friendly Crowd for McCain

In general, its true: this was John McCain's audience before he even walked into the room. Most in this group already support his candidacy by virtue of the fact he is a Republican; however, there are many evangelicals who have cast doubt McCain, Dr. James Doson being one of them.

John McCain did what he thought he must: provide the prerequisite answers to issues of social conservatism that he has been wishy-washy about in the past.

McCain treated it like an easy pop-quiz, but is it really that simple?

John McCain has often tried to cast himself as a moderate - and I don't doubt he'll continue to do that as the election draws near - but at this forum, John McCain chose to cast himself emphatically as a social conservative. How long will it take for the press to remember that in 2001, he thought about switching to the Democratic Party, and in 2004 even considered running with John Kerry as VP?

Fluffing his conservative credentials isn't the only problem for John McCain.

John McCain is not the 100% social conservative he is trying to make himself out to be. His quasi-liberal tendencies is one reason that the Republican base is still not enthusiastic about him as a candidate. But McCain needs this base demographic, so its not surprising that he did his best to pander to the crowd as much as possible, going so far as to say he would support a constitutional amendment to keep same sex couples from wedding.

Sound like the "Maverick" "Bi-Partisan" or "Moderate" John McCain that people like Joe Lieberman like to praise? Hardly.

And that leads to the other problem John McCain created for himself by embracing his answers too enthusiastically: all those moderate voters and swing voters who could go either way hear "I will be just like Bush on your Social Conservative issues." In other words, this socially conservative audience is the only one that matters to McCain... the rest of the country can take a hike?

The problems don't end there for McCain

The GOP base has veered off course since Bush's second term, and is disenchanted after republican cronies like Ralph Reed and Jack Ambramhoff were caught scamming them. At the same time, global climate change was fast becoming an important issue for the younger evangelicals. The result for the the GOP: evangelical voters either dropped out of the political process all together or - worse - they converted to the Democrat side.

So when John McCain walked into that room of evangelical values voters thinking "I've got this in the bag, the script is practically written for me," is ignoring the fact this crowd is not the same as 4 years ago: they are no longer as loyal to the GOP and a great many of them are even backing a Democrat.

Who listened closely to Jeff Warren's introduction?

Pastor Rick affirmed a shift in political evangelicalism by saying "We believe in the separation of church and state, but we do not believe in the separation of faith and politics." He continued,
"We've got to learn to disagree without demonizing each other and we need to restore civility in our civil discourse and that's the goal of the Saddleback Civil Forum."
And here is where we get to one of McCain's biggest problems: he didn't listen to Rick Warren's introduction. People are tired of "my way or the highway" one sided politics. Don't be mistaken by the enthusiasm of the audience, Obama's inroads into this demographic is a good reason for the GOP to worry.

If the objective of the forum was to restore a sense of civility to politics, and a sense of collaboration and compromise toward solving our biggest problems together, then Barack Obama succeeded in doing just that: he showed the audience that he will bring them to the table and include them in the debate.

And judging by the cheers Barack got from the crowd, a great many liked his message. In an election cycle where even top republicans won't be attending their party convention , it behooves McCain not to be overly confident about getting the party base support the same way Bush did.

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