National Commentary

Nicholas F. Benton: Will McCain Rule the Middle?

In basketball jargon, “the team that rules the paint, rules the game.”

“The paint” refers to the area around the basket. That’s where all the lay-ups, the “put backs,” the offensive and defensive rebounds, and blocked shots occur. If you can’t compete amidst all the bodies that battle it out in there, you are consigned to the perimeter, and forced to revert to low-percentage long shots.

The analogy to politics, especially U.S. presidential politics, is apt.

The candidate who can capture the political middle will prevail over the one who is pushed to the political margin.

It is clear already that Sen. John McCain is diving for that middle, and that he intends to rule there like Shaq in his prime. The margin, being the far right in the GOP, will take a back seat in this process, as events this week are making clear.

This is a decisive strategy, and McCain can pull it off despite his support for George Bush’s war and rightist leanings in recent years. He retains a reputation as a maverick and a straight-shooter, and those qualities appeal to citizens in the political center, including legions of independents.

Although the Democratic primary process may be almost over, and the dye cast, the issue of controlling the political center is one the Democrats have not addressed.

Obama Mania has truly taken over the party’s rational faculties, and along with it, any conventional political wisdom, even the good parts. Obama is counting on legions of new, younger voters, inspired by the vision and rhetoric that are the substance of the campaign. They will overwhelm America’s stodgy middle, they insist.

Yet we are just beginning to catch a glimpse of how McCain, and all the forces aligned with him, will focus on pushing Obama to the fringes of the far left over the course of a very brutal campaign. There will be plenty of surrogates, including those from whom McCain will officially disassociate, who will carry this out.

Already, the fact that Obama is rated by the Americans for Democratic Action with the most progressive voting record in Congress, bar none, makes him vulnerable in this way.

The problem for Obama will be that the more he pushes back, and tries to muscle his way into the political middle, the more he will risk losing his legions of naïve, star-struck newbies who have no stomach for the pragmatic.

In fact, it is a risky proposition anytime a campaign counts on the participation of those who do not have a history of political activism, much less getting out on election day and actually voting.

Obama’s strong anti-war stance won’t be enough for him, just as it wasn’t for George McGovern in 1972. Despite how unpopular the Vietnam War had become, Richard Nixon won that election, and by one of the biggest landslides ever.

It wasn’t until after the election was over that Democrats began to realize that they’d picked a candidate that was out of step with core sentiments of the population on a wide range of issues. Nobody thought that through beforehand, and those who did were stampeded by the idealistic, anti-war hordes. I know. I was there. I was among those hordes.

Such movements work to change history in their own ways, but not by winning U.S. presidential elections. At least not so far.

It is ironic that, even as she now hangs by a thread from elimination in the Democratic primary process, Sen. Hillary Clinton is the one in her party with the clout, toughness and track record to roust McCain out of the middle.

She can duke it out with McCain there, and prevail, based on her record, because her appeal will be to seasoned voters and not dependent upon untested ones. It also would be a tough, brutal fight, but fought out closer to the 50-yard line, to draw an analogy from a different sport, and not up against a goal line.

Obama supporters insist this time it will be different. Maybe my McGovern experience has turned me into a cynic. But on the other hand, we thought it would be different then, too, and it that was time for a change. Then there’s the adage that the more things change, the more they stay the same.

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