A John McCain [Images] victory would represent an almost miraculous comeback. But is miraculous the right word? I'm in Austin, Texas, right now, a lefty enclave in the heart of Republican Texas, and I sense that many of my Barack Obama-supporting friends would consider an Obama defeat a sign that America is somehow damned, or at least incorrigibly racist.
Some months ago, Sarah Palin [Images] told Philip Gourevitch of The New Yorker that she wasn't worried about Obama's strong support in Alaska -- it was a sign that the state wouldn't be crippled by 'obsessive partisanship'. Now, of course, Palin has become a lightning rod for obsessive partisans on both sides, and the purpling of America she once hailed looks as dead as a doorknob. The operative word here, however, is 'looks'.
Barack Obama, Fabian socialist
Americans are exhausted from years of fierce political combat. Obama's great appeal is that he promises to move beyond tired debates to build a new consensus. Whatever you think of Obama, it's hard to disagree with the notion that Americans are eager for pragmatic problem-solving. If McCain does manage to win, he needs to keep that in mind.
We've enjoyed tremendous civil peace over the past few decades. It is easy to forget that political passions boiled over into serious political violence as recently as the 1980s and 1990s, when attacks on abortion clinics and the Oklahoma City bombing threatened a return to the darkest days of the 1960s. As polarised as we are right now, things have been worse and they could get worse again.
If McCain wins and millions of voters believe that his victory was built on racism, the mood of the country will surely sour. McCain would have to take dramatic steps to heal the divisions that have grown over the last eight years, and indeed over the last several months of the campaign.
It helps that McCain would have no choice but to reach out to Democrats and independents. Republican Washington is exhausted and bereft. After eight years, a great deal of talent is eager to leave government. Whereas there are several Democrats eager to fill each junior-level post in an Obama White House, scaring up Republicans willing to serve for another four years will prove tougher than you might think.
Where the 'rich' tax targets live
It is hard to see how McCain could govern successfully without drawing on the talent of centrist Democrats. At the same time, politically savvy Democrats will be strongly inclined to wait out a McCain presidency, confident that Obama, Hillary Clinton [Images], or some other Democrat will win the White House in 2012. And who could blame them?
Regardless, McCain would have to appeal to the patriotism of key Democrats, ranging from senior statesmen like Sam Nunn and Lee Hamilton to, yes, Obama, Hillary Clinton and Al Gore [Images]. Placing Joe Lieberman in a senior role won't be good enough. I'd go so far as to ask Jack Reed, Democratic senator from Rhode Island and a critic of the invasion of Iraq, to serve as Secretary of Defense. Though I'm a staunch supporter of the surge strategy and I believe that we need to be in Iraq for some time to come, I know that Reed understands the relevant issues and that he'd lend valuable experience to the role.
American voters, including most of those who back McCain, are desperate for a change in policy direction and a change in tone. That means a government of national unity, one that really does place "Country First."
If this all sounds very precious and twee, note that overwhelming Democratic majorities in Congress mean that gridlock is likely. Now, this is an attractive scenario to those who believe government can't help but do harm -- but at the very least the status quo will not deliver the reforms and budget cuts that we'll need to put the public finances in order. Democrats need to feel as though they share in the ownership of these measures. If they don't, we might be looking at an even deeper economic crisis.
In the incredibly strange final weeks of this campaign, McCain has chosen to attack Obama as a "socialist," as though programs like the Earned Income Tax Credit, pioneered by libertarian economists and backed by the Reagan White House, were devious Marxist plots. McCain would thus have relatively little room to maneuver on domestic policy.
As one of the most effective opponents of the first Bush tax cuts, McCain seemed to have the instincts of a budget hawk, one who would be willing to hash out a tough compromise on taxes and spending, giving Democrats in Congress cover while also digging us out a fiscal hole. Now, however, McCain might feel honor-bound to resist any tax increase, even one designed to guarantee lower tax rates over the long term.
Very simply, McCain needs to jettison his jerrybuilt domestic policy. I'd obviously love for him to embrace one of my harebrained schemes, but the truth is that he'd have to work patiently with Democrats and Republicans in the Congress on a case-by-case basis. He'd have to surrender any personal ambition in favor of muddling through as a kind of nonpartisan chief magistrate -- one who will swear off running for a second term if need be to accomplish a few central goals.
If this doesn't sound very inspiring, well, you can blame President Bush for sowing so much distrust and for squandering the rare moment of post-9/11 bipartisanship. McCain won't set hearts aflutter. But he can, with luck and the courage he's known for, undo some of the damage done over the past eight years.
Reihan Salam is an associate editor at The Atlantic and a fellow at the New America Foundation. The co-author of Grand New Party: How Republicans Can Win the Working Class and Save the American Dream, he writes a weekly column for Forbes.com