Now that John McCain has secured the delegates he needs to become his party’s nominee, he has a period for several weeks, possibly several months, during which the Democrats are going to be slugging it out. So what should he do with his time?
(1) Raise money. The Clinton campaign raised a record $35 million in February, and speculation in the media points to a $50 million haul for Obama in the same period. That builds on Obama’s $30+ million in January. In contrast, McCain raised $12 million in February.
Over the course of the campaign, Clinton and Obama have each raised roughly $135 million. Through January, Clinton has $29 million left, and Obama has $25 million left. McCain, on the other hand, has raised $53 million over the course of the campaign, and has $5 million left, less than Ron Paul.
But while the Democrats are raising $85 million a month, they can’t spend that money defining John McCain or introducing their general election messaging. They have to spend it on 3 a.m. phone ads and the like. That provides McCain with a golden opportunity — now that he has access to all GOP donors, he can build out his fundraising base and start putting out ads that define the Democrats in any negative way he pleases.
But successfully building that donor base means consolidating his support among American conservatives. In order to that he must…
(2) Unify the base. I saw Mike Huckabee’s concession speech yesterday as the last cry of the evangelical wing of the Republican Party. Traditionally a powerhouse in Republican politics, the evangelicals and their priorities aren’t represented by the new standard-bearer of the Republican Party, a man who, despite his willingness to pander, probably betrayed his true feelings when, in the 2000 campaign, he called evangelical leaders “agents of intolerance.” Huckabee quoted the Bible repeatedly last night, and made reference to “unborn” Americans. Implicit in his promise to John McCain that he would work to unify the country was a message that unity comes at a price: Huckabee will work to get evangelicals behind McCain, but McCain must accept as his own the priorities of the evangelical community.
By now it’s no secret that wide swaths of the Republican Party hate McCain. They see him as a false conservative who has repeatedly chosen to stick a finger in his own party’s eye, for his personal amusement and that of the press who loves him so dearly, over pushing for conservative principles. In so doing, he has given cover to Democrats who want to claim bipartisan support for a liberal bill or bipartisan opposition to a Republican one. What can John McCain do to erase these memories? For one, he can reach out to the conservative elites (Coulter, Limbaugh, etc.) who fuel the anti-McCain sentiment on the right. Do talk radio. Do Fox News. Even go on the conservative blogosphere. These people, I’m suspecting, just want to be petted. A little flattery and a few mea culpas will probably go a long way.
(3) Manage the Republican Party’s infrastructure. In 2000, McCain loved to refer to himself as Luke Skywalker, on a quest to defeat the menacing Republican Party establishment. Well guess what? McCain owns the Death Star now. And it’s in shambles. Democrats (and their various party organs, like the DCCC and the DSCC) have a huge fundraising advantage over their Republican counterparts, and the National Republican Congressional Committee, the entity responsible for electing GOP candidates to the House, is mired in scandal. Republican members of Congress are retiring in droves, and Democrats are looking to make solid gains in the Senate. The man who has built his reputation as a maverick by bucking his own party now must run it.
Can he campaign in all the right places? Can he hire all the right people? Can he reenergize donors and volunteers? It will do him little good to get elected President only to find even larger Democratic majorities in both houses of Congress. John McCain has never run anything — successfully guiding the Death Star may be his only chance to prove he has executive chops.
So there you have it. John McCain’s job: don the black helmet and make like Darth Vader.