Elvin Lim is Assistant Professor of Government at Wesleyan University and author of The Anti-intellectual Presidency, which draws on interviews with more than 40 presidential speechwriters to investigate this relentless qualitative decline, over the course of 200 years, in our presidents’ ability to communicate with the public. He also blogs at www.elvinlim.com. In the article below he reflects on the candidates actions at the Faith Forum. Read his previous OUPblogs here.
Watching John McCain at the Faith Forum with Pastor Rick Warren, one could come away thinking that he is in full pander mode. The party maverick in him has been fully exorcised. Now he delivers the punch lines, one after another. General Patraeus is his hero, activist judges should not be on the bench, life begins at conception. For fellow partisans, he delivered a conservative homerun; this weekend. Many wise political observers concur that McCain was ruthlessly on message, and Obama was congenial, though a little too thoughtful.
For one reason, this was to be expected. McCain was with a sympathetic audience, so he could deliver the lines they wanted to hear without qualms. Comfortable as Obama purports to be with his faith, he is a Democrat, and every Democrat must equivocate before an evangelical audience.
But, it could still be asked – why was McCain so dedicatedly on message? If he already has the evangelical vote (which for the most part he does), why is he delivering the punch lines? One would think that someone who already has his base would be trying to woo the other side. Conversely, why is Obama setting himself up for a difficult, if not a losing, battle? Why is he so significantly less risk-averse than McCain?
Obama is trying, and McCain is securing, and I think this says a lot about the electoral dynamics of the 2008 elections. Obama is going for big game here – he is trying in Virginia and Georgia (all 50 states, as Howard Dean attests), so heck, why not try with evangelicals – and we should not underestimate the either the scope or the riskiness of his ambition, especially given the unsettled score with Clinton supporters within the Democratic party. McCain, on the other hand, is making comparatively only perfunctory efforts to reach the median voter – who, as we know in a two-party system ultimately decides elections – suggesting that he does not think he has secured his base.
McCain is delivering the lines his base wants to hear because he cannot afford another crack in the faltering Republican armor. He may have been entirely authentic in his professions this weekend, but it is still revealing that he did not (and perhaps could not) choose to take the strategic path of trying to increase his lead among independents. Obama’s relative equivocation on faith and conservative issues probably did not impress most evangelicals, but most Americans are not evangelicals.
Many liberals think that McCain was in full pander mode this weekend. Maybe he was, or maybe he was being authentic, but I am surprised that McCain isn’t trying harder to reach across the aisle to coddle the independent voter who may not buy every one of his conservative punchlines. Revealed preferences seem to indicate that he doesn’t think he has a choice. Here’s the danger: for all of McCain’s determination and perceived obligation to deliver an ideologically pure message, it may not resonate as strongly as it certainly did in 1980. Because it’s 2008.