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McCain Needs 'Vision' to Beat Historic Odds Favoring Obama in '08

By Mort Kondracke

A new scholarly analysis confirms that Sen. John McCain (R-Ariz.) has to perform miracles to win the 2008 election. So far, he is far short of doing that.

McCain's speech in Louisiana Tuesday night fell embarrassingly short of matching Sen. Barack Obama's (D-Ill.) eloquence, vision and delivery -- demonstrating the distance McCain has to go to have a chance of winning in November.

In the absence of a big step-up in his performance, McCain will have to rely on Obama's self-destruction -- which could happen, in view of Sen. Hillary Rodham Clinton's (D-N.Y.) evident effort to force him to name her as his running mate.

She refused to yield the limelight to him on Tuesday, when he clinched the Democratic nomination, and now she is implicitly threatening to turn the Democratic National Convention into a donnybrook unless he agrees to put her onto a "unity ticket."

He may actually decide on his own that he needs her to guarantee carrying her constituencies -- white workers, Hispanics, Jews and Catholics -- but to accept her under threat will make him look weak, hardly commander-in-chief material in a dangerous world.

And yet, McCain can't bank on Democratic disarray. Despite polls showing him doing surprisingly well against Obama, historical patterns show he's in perilous territory.

Professor Alan Abramowitz of Emory University has developed an "electoral barometer" based on just three variables for predicting election outcomes, and it suggests that McCain is all but certainly set to lose this year.

In an article last week on University of Virginia professor Larry Sabato's Crystal Ball Web site, Abramowitz declared that "it appears very likely that the Republican party is dealing with the dreaded 'triple whammy' in 2008: an unpopular president, a weak economy and a second-term election."

Abramowitz has tracked the effect of those variables on the last 15 presidential elections and found that they accurately predicted the popular vote outcome in 14 and came close in the 15th.

The formula adds the incumbent president's net approval rating (approval minus disapproval), the second-quarter election-year GDP growth rate multiplied by five (emphasizing the importance of the economy) and then (factoring in time-for-a-change sentiment) subtracts 25 points if the in-party is finishing a second term.

Bush's net approval now stands at minus 40. The first-quarter growth rate was 0.6 percent and Bush is finishing eight years, meaning that this year's electoral barometer currently stands at minus 62.

If such a number holds, it "would predict a decisive defeat for the Republican presidential candidate," Abramowitz wrote. "The only election since World War II with a score in this range was 1980," when "Jimmy Carter suffered the worst defeat for an incumbent president since Herbert Hoover in 1932."

The second worst occurred in 1952, when Democrat Adlai Stevenson tried to succeed Harry S. Truman with a minus 50 score and lost the popular vote by 11 points to Dwight D. Eisenhower.

The Abramowitz barometer is a short-cut variation on American University professor Allan Lichtman's famed "13 Keys to the Presidency," which adds such factors as wars, candidate charisma, scandal and the incumbent party's performance in off-year elections to the economy and incumbency.

When Lichtman published the latest edition of his book early this year, he flatly predicted that "the Democratic candidate will capture the White House in 2008 no matter the choice of a nominee."

Democrats have advantages Lichtman couldn't anticipate, such as a charismatic nominee, now giving them eight of the 13 "keys" -- plenty enough to win.

Historical models are invented to be broken, of course. But they give an indication of the odds McCain has to overcome.

As his and Obama's speeches Tuesday night showed, McCain is not overcoming them.

Against Obama's positive, eloquent, visionary uplift, McCain offered a negative, weakly delivered alternative that was even half-borrowed from Obama. A sign behind McCain read "A Leader We Can Believe In," a lift from Obama's slogan "Change We Can Believe In."

McCain has a great set of substantive arguments, notably that Obama's idea of change relies on across-the-board big government, which again and again falls short of meeting America's needs.

McCain did his best to claim the word "reform" as an alternative to Obama's "change" and to refute Obama's charge that he represents "Bush's third term."

But he offered no overriding vision to compete with Obama's soaring, Kennedy-esque declaration, "America, this is our moment ... our time to offer a new direction to the country we love."

Even though McCain has differed from Bush on Iraq War strategy, detainee policy, energy and climate change, McCain does back Bush policies on taxes, foreign policy, health care and (the environment excepted) free-market solutions to America's problems.

McCain has nothing to match Obama's promise to "invest in our crumbling infrastructure" and in human capital -- early childhood education, the public schools, college education and scientific research.

To the contrary, McCain plans to curtail "wasteful spending" and freeze all government programs at current levels until he sorts out which work. "Public investment" is not in his vocabulary.

Obama's vision may well represent a throwback to 1960s liberalism, but the country's attitude toward government often cycles from "big" to "small" and back again.

During Bush's claimed "small government" years, median income has fallen, the ranks of the uninsured have swelled, debt has mounted and prices have soared.

Voters clearly want "change." McCain has a long way to go to convince them that his kind is better than Obama's, even though -- on the merits -- it may well be.

At the rate things are going, history will repeat itself with a Democratic victory in 2008 and liberal domination of the government until voters change their minds again.

Mort Kondracke is the Executive Editor of Roll Call, the newspaper of Capitol Hill since 1955. © 2007 Roll Call, Inc.

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