Richard Nixon, whose positions on many issues also were more centrist than his party's, had an answer to this dilemma. He recognized from the start than winning coalitions can be built most readily around common adversaries. "Failed leadership" was the theme of his 1968 acceptance speech, which was a greater success than his "build on past foundations" speech as incumbent vice president in 1960. Al Gore and George H. W. Bush later faced similar challenges. But in none of these cases was the recent party legacy as difficult a burden as it is today.
How do you separate yourself from such a legacy in the immediate company of its hard-core defenders? McCain cannot exactly run against "failed leadership."
One effective way to dodge the dilemma would be to concentrate on McCain's compelling personal story—and undoubtedly he will. But that alone will not respond to the Democrats' "eight is enough" thrust. Another approach would be to amplify the "not ready to lead" attacks already launched against his opponent. But this, too, would be an incomplete and potentially counterproductive answer, out of tune with the growing public distaste for negative campaigning and, for that matter, with his own vice presidential selection. And it would not distinguish him from the incumbent administration.
So how does one speak as a leader for change in front of the party of continuity?
One answer: Identify common targets of outrage whose names are neither Bush nor Obama. And there are a number of good possibilities. "Washington" is one, as in "Washington is broken"; "politics as usual" is another, as in "reaching across the aisle"; "special interests" are a third, as in "the corrupting effects of big money in politics." And McCain could also rally believers and give pause to independents by running against the prospect of an "unchecked Democratic Congress."
What gives these themes persuasive power is that John McCain was identified with all of them well before Barack Obama came on the scene. To be sure, they are themes (all but the last) that Obama articulates persuasively. And they lead to other, more detailed questions. How are they best advanced? Who can best advance them? Such details, however, could be taken up in the fall debates, a more comfortable forum for McCain—and one that will be even more consequential.
Lee W. Hubner, a former speechwriter for President Nixon and former publisher of the International Herald Tribune, is the director of the School of Media and Public Affairs at George Washington University.