McCain Tries to Trump Obama by Playing the “Experience” Card

But history shows that strategy often isn’t a winner.

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A central front in John McCain's fall strategy is clear. He will lambaste Barack Obama as an immature political ce-lebrity who can't be trusted as commander in chief in a dangerous world. In a recent interview (story, Page 16), McCain argued that he has been part of the decision-making process on every majornational-security issue that has faced the United States for more than two decades—a stark contrast to Obama's four years in the Senate, when he played almost no role in those decisions. McCain has also been running TV ads mocking Obama's fame and portraying him as a glib generalist with little or no grasp of policy details. A recent Washington Post/ABC poll found that Obama is gradually losing support among voters "who value strength and experience over change, who doubt Obama's qualifications, and who see him as a risky choice."

These sound like powerful arguments, but they are far from a sure bet to succeed. In fact, this very tactic of billing an opponent as a risk has a history of failing on Election Day. President Gerald Ford made that charge against Jimmy Carter, a one-term governor from Georgia, in 1976. Carter still won. President Carter said former California Gov. Ronald Reagan was too risky in 1980, and again the gambit failed. President George H. W. Bush billed Arkansas Gov. Bill Clinton as an untested neophyte in 1992—another failure. And Vice President Al Gore questioned Texas Gov. George W. Bush's ability to master official Washington in 2000—still another strikeout.

Judgment. This time, the "risky" candidate could prevail again if Obama can persuade voters that he makes up for his thin résumé with good judgment, that he is more sensitive than McCain to everyday people's concerns and problems, and that he will break with the policies of the unpopular incumbent.

The 1980 contest might offer the best parallel. "The country had turned against Jimmy Carter but was not sure of Ronald Reagan," recalls Ken Duberstein, Reagan's former White House chief of staff. "Would he start a war? Was he a 'crazy' cowboy from California? Would you trust him with his hand on the nuclear button? Was he too inexperienced?" This year, "the jury is out," Duberstein adds. "Obama has the same challenge of getting over the acceptability threshold so people can feel comfortable with him."

With the race extremely close in the polls, Reagan broke through in his lone debate with Carter a week before Election Day. The smooth-talking Californian seemed cool, steady, and unthreatening. His closing statement showed his sensitivity to the nation's concerns when he asked, "Are you better off than you were four years ago?" This clarified the central question for most voters, and their answer was a resounding no. The desire for change overwhelmed the fear of risk, and Reagan won by a landslide.

In 1992, Clinton and his aides kept their focus on the country's financial woes. "It's the economy, stupid," became his slogan, and in the end it proved to be a masterful strategy. Despite his personal flaws and lack of national-security background, Clinton defeated Bush, the architect of the successful Persian Gulf War, by convincing voters that he was a fast learner on security issues and would more effectively address Americans' concerns about the economy, which outweighed everything else.

There is a big exception to the pattern. In 2004, Bush portrayed Democratic challenger John Kerry as a weak, indecisive politician who wasn't up to the challenge of defeating terrorists in the wake of the 9/11 attacks. Bush won. Obama advisers privately say they are relieved that the power of the national-security argument seems greatly diminished. "With his combat record, McCain comes across as a tough protector and a fighter," says a senior Obama strategist. "And if this were 2004, we wouldn't stand a chance. But the dominant issue has changed from national security to the economy in a profound way."

McCain understands this. In his interview, he said, "I think it's very clear that the overriding issue is the economy. Americans are hurting very badly, and we are in extremely challenging and difficult times." But McCain and his aides continue to beat the drum that Obama is too risky on national-security issues. McCain has "a depth of knowledge, a breadth of knowledge, and an extent of historical experience" far greater than Obama's, says Randy Scheunemann, McCain's senior foreign policy adviser. A senior Republican strategist, in an interesting swipe at Bush, adds: "People don't want to make a mistake. They felt they were sold a bill of goods with Bush in 2000 and 2004, and both Republicans and Democrats are very disappointed with how he turned out."