David Gergen | Bio
CNN Senior Political Analyst
Say what you will about Republicans making a muddle of governing, but they sure know how to campaign. The turn of events that John McCain and his team have engineered in recent weeks is one of the most significant events of the campaign and now poses a serious threat of an upset this fall.
In just a few short weeks, they have not only thrown Barack Obama on the defensive and made him seem smaller but they have also made McCain seem larger and more commanding. And it has not just been one event but a string of them that they have tied together to propel McCain upward - from the ads (which most of us in the media didn't like) to the way McCain seized upon the drilling and Russian issues to his winsome performance at Saddleback. The capacity to create issues and momentum practically out of the ether is the sign of a strong campaign. Both McCain and his team are impressing voters.
And the results are now showing up in the polls: not only are some key states like Ohio breaking toward McCain but the Reuters/Zogby poll today showed McCain opening up a 5-point national lead - and stunningly, voters said in that survey that he would be better handling the economy than Obama! That is the bread and butter issue for the Democrats, one they should be able to seize upon to capture seats up and down the ticket.
Now, a couple of cautions are in order. This race was always going to tighten as Republican voters came home and McCain is benefiting to a considerable degree because that has been happening of late. In all the polls, there also remains a large bloc of voters who are undecided and many of them look like they are potential Obama voters. Campaigns also have a tendency to ebb and flow, so that the latest McCain tide could easily recede, especially if the Democrats put on a thunderous convention or McCain makes a mistake (not hard to envision). And there remains great, great enthusiasm on the Obama side and a general antipathy to the Bush years. So, it is important not to insert lots of caveats.
Still, this should be a huge wake-up call to Obama and the Democrats. From my perspective, Obama needs to introduce a game changer - and fast - before public opinion starts to gel around the notion that he is a phenom who deserves great respect but is not seasoned enough and would be too much of a risk in the Oval Office.
In part, he needs to change the narrative of the campaign - away from the notion that the biggest single problem facing the country - the "transcendent" threat of our time, as McCain argues - is terrorism. Terrorists and Islamic radicals are indeed a significant challenge and must be overcome but most observers would say that it is one of several challenges and that others are equally pressing, starting with the urgent, urgent need to put our own house in order and the need to deal with additional global issues such as global warming, nuclear proliferation and the rise of Asia. A major test of the Denver convention is whether Democrats can recast the central argument of the campaign and throw the Republicans back on the convention. Either Democrats persuade the country why they should now take charge or perhaps they aren't ready to govern after all.
But it can't stop there. Obama must also introduce a game changer through the way he signals who will be in the Oval Office with him. After all, no president governs all by himself; the success or failure of an administration also rests heavily on the team he assembles to work at his side.
Here are three obvious game-changers that one could envision:
1. The Hillary game changer - If he were to surprise the country - and the press - by naming Hillary Clinton as his running mate, he could turn the race upside down. Making the announcement in Springfield this Saturday, drawing from Lincoln's experience in assembling a "team of rivals" (the glorious book by Doris Kearns Goodwin), would be transformative. No one else would so galvanize the Democrats, bring a fighter to his side, and send a clear message that an Obama administration would bring experience to solving problems both at home and abroad. Has anyone looked what happened to jobs and wages under Bush vs. Clinton? The comparison is startling. And remember that a quarter of Hillary's voters still haven't "come home" to the Democratic column.
2. The Gore game changer – If Al Gore were to agree to come in for a single term, he, too, would galvanize Democrats and send a clear message to the country that an experienced, fresh team was coming to Washington to fix things at home and abroad. It's not just that Al Gore won more votes in 2000 than George W. Bush but he has also transformed his reputation through his Nobel prize and leadership on the environment.
Okay, okay, neither of these is really likely. If anything, signs today point increasingly toward Joe Biden as the choice (though others are still alive), and Biden would bring to the ticket stature, experience and a capacity to make the arguments, especially on national security. Biden in many ways is an excellent choice. But is he a game changer? You tell me. So, that leads to a possible third alternative:
3. Building Team Obama – Candidates in the past have toyed with the idea of naming their potential Secretary of State, Secretary of Defense, Secretary of Treasury, etc., during the fall campaign, instead of waiting. There are many reasons why they haven't. But given his lack of executive experience, Obama clearly needs to revisit this possibility so that he can show the world not just who is going to the White House but who is going with him. If he decides that won't work, then why not try a variation? What if, for example, he asked men and women of great stature - people who would be trusted to run the country - to sign a public pledge this fall that in the event of an Obama election, they would be prepared to accept an invitation from him to come work in Washington at his side OR work in an informal, part-time advisory role? One could imagine a host of serious people - from Paul Volcker, Bob Rubin Mike Bloomberg and Larry Summers - to Madeleine Albright, Dick Holbrooke, Sam Nunn, David Boren, Joel Klein, and retired generals - who would step forward to take that pledge. (You and I could easily expand this list to include many others.)
The point is that leadership in the White House today is much more than a single, lonely heroic figure standing alone in the shadows of the Oval Office, weighing the great issues of the day. It is about pulling together an assemblage of great individuals and turning them into a team who will govern the country well. Whoever wins - whether McCain or Obama - will have to do that.