McCain Judiciary Speech Points to Fall Strategy

Washington Matters

McCain Judiciary Speech Points to Fall Strategy

With so much attention paid to primaries in Indiana and North Carolina, you may have not noticed that John McCain took his general election campaign to a new level today.

McCain's speech on the judiciary at Wake Forest University in North Carolina was ostensibly about the wreck and ruination that "activist judges" are bringing down on the country -- a long-time rallying cry of political conservatives of all ideological stripes. But the speech had two other clear targets as well -- the broad swath of independents and potential cross-over voters who are likely to determine the November election.

While he criticized both Hillary Clinton and Barack Obama, McCain made clear that he believes Obama will be the one to end up with the crown by singling him out for special and specific ridicule. McCain pointed to how Obama portrays himself as "someone who can work across the aisle to get things done," but when the nomination of Supreme Court Justice John Roberts came up, "he went right along with the partisan crowd, and was among 22 senators to vote against this highly qualified nominee."

And with that judgment, as well as a few other lines aimed at Obama and Clinton, McCain sought to accomplish multiple tasks:

-- Undercut Obama's image as a bipartisan consensus builder by branding him as a partisan Democrat and liberal who would unleash a cadre of activist judges to interpret the Constitution as they see fit.


-- Take a page from Clinton's playbook and characterize Obama as out-of-touch with mainstream Americans and part of "an elite group of activist judges, lawyers, and law professors who think they know wisdom when they see it -- and they see it only in each other."

-- Recapture the attention of independents, centrists and conservative to moderate Democrats by pointing to rulings in recent years by federal judges at different levels that many Americans found outlandish or even offensive, such as a short-lived appeals court decision that would have removed the words "under God" when the Pledge of Allegiance was said in public schools.

-- Remind that same group of voters, which have been his most reliable supporters, of his record as an independent maverick and bipartisan broker of compromises by pointing to his pivotal role in a controversial deal that protected the use of the filibuster by the minority in the Senate while also putting Roberts and Justice Samuel Alito on the bench.

But McCain's neatest trick of all was to make that appeal to centrists and independents in the same speech while simultaneously trying to persuade the pro-business and social conservatives that make up much of the base of his party that only he stood between them and a reign of judges with lifetime appointments who could undermine their social and religious values and slip a noose of regulation around the neck of entrepreneurs.

McCain doubtless picked the judiciary as a topic to emphasize early on because of the rousing and unifying effect he expects it to have on supporters. While many conservatives are wary of McCain -- and some despise him -- for crossing them with the filibuster deal and on a host of other issues, they fear giving Democrats the power to pick a Supreme Court nominee more than almost any other aspect of an Obama or Clinton presidency. McCain's reminder of what he and they regard as the disastrous consequences of that happening could energize many voters who otherwise might give Election Day a pass.