John McCain, it is generally agreed, has something of an age problem. It's not just that he'd be the oldest president ever inaugurated for the first time. McCain's criticisms of Barack Obama sometimes draw on events and cultural references that many Americans only dimly recall—the movie "Dr. No" (the first James Bond flick, from 1962), or Jimmy Carter's windfall tax from 30 years ago. Every time McCain has a moment of forgetfulness, the skeptics start whispering again—reminding one that, as a Pew Research Survey showed last year, "ageism" may be a bigger factor in the election than racism.
But now, in a neat bit of campaign jiujitsu, the McCainiacs are trying to change a liability into a strength. McCain's 71 years have given him not only vastly more experience than Obama, the new thinking goes, they have ensured that America will have, once again, an "adult" president in the mold of an Eisenhower or a Truman. And there is no better evidence than McCain's energy plan, which the candidate has laid out in a very, er, energetic series of appearances and speeches over the last week. "We wanted it to be a grown-up vision," said Mark Salter, McCain's chief speechwriter and alter ego, who in a Newsweek interview reiterated several times that McCain's approach is that of an "adult." This evidence of mature judgment specifically includes McCain's decision to reverse himself—grown-ups adjust, after all, to changed circumstances—by calling for offshore oil drilling. "We wanted to show that McCain would view the presidency as a problem solver—a bipartisan problem solver," says Salter.
The McCain energy plan has left the Obama-ites sputtering that their candidate laid out a comprehensive energy plan last October. "You have it exactly backward!" Jason Furman, an advisor to Obama on energy, told me when I suggested that Obama was on the defensive. "John McCain is responding to Barack Obama, who has put forward a major and ambitious plan on energy.'' Frankly, however, no one really cares what Obama said last October. And there's no question that McCain's flurry of concrete proposals—including a call for 45 more nuclear power plants, a $300 million prize to the designer of a new electric car battery, overturning the 27-year ban on offshore drilling and a $5,000 tax credit for people who buy "zero-emissions" cars—prompted Obama to spend most of his own energy speech this week knocking those ideas down. That in turn generated a GOP Web video declaring that "Obama is Dr. No," complete with a Bond-like theme song.
Something of a role-reversal is going on here. Most pundits think Obama's had the advantage so far in offering a "vision" and in taking the offensive. Now it's McCain who has laid out a clear—if questionably feasible—energy vision for the future, while the Obama-ites are still rushing to put together a comprehensive paper gathering all his ideas on the current gas crisis and the long-term energy crisis. Compare: McCain, in a speech on Wednesday (his fifth), launched his so-called Lexington Project—"named for the town where Americans asserted their independence once before." "Let it begin today with this commitment: In a world of hostile and unstable suppliers of oil, this nation will achieve strategic independence by 2025," he said. What does "strategic independence" mean? It's not quite clear. But the phrase sounds pretty good, and rather more inspiring than Obama's narrower proposal to "reduce our dependence on foreign oil and reduce oil consumption overall by at least 35 percent, or 10 million barrels, by 2030," or to "reduce the energy intensity of our economy by 50 percent" by the same year. True, Obama has called for an investment of $150 billion over 10 years, dwarfing McCain's incentive plan, as Furman points out. But he hasn't spelled out how that would be used.
Like McCain's embrace of global warming as a national-security issue, his new stance on energy is a studied repudiation of the Bush administration. It is one of the ways he is seeking to neutralize Obama's relentless efforts to define a McCain presidency as a "third Bush term." "Some in Washington seem to think that we can still persuade OPEC to lower prices—as if reason or cajolery had never been tried before," McCain said mockingly in another speech this week. "But America is not going to meet this great challenge as a supplicant or a plaintiff." He was, of course, mocking Bush himself—who twice in the last six months has gone to Riyadh pleading for more oil production.
And, while no one's quite saying this, McCain's new "grown-up" theme may be a put-down of Bush as well. It is a way of reminding voters that, while the antic Prince Hal never quite matured into King Henry V—and could never control the infighting between ideologues and realists in his administration—John McCain is already a well-rounded man in full, with a set program.
Neither of the two candidates, by his own admission, knows how to dramatically reverse the most immediate problem on Americans' minds: $4.50-a-gallon gasoline. But acknowledging that is also an act of adulthood, Salter says. "There are very few things—and every grown-up recognizes it—you can do today to lower prices," he says, adding that halting additions to the Strategic Petroleum Reserve or perhaps lifting tariffs on ethanol might help. (Obama, for his part, has resorted to offering a tax rebate that has nothing to do with altering the economics of energy; he has also called for more regulation of oil speculators.) The latest polls show McCain well behind, but his campaign believes it has found its footing now, Salter says. The candidate is well-aged. The question is, will voters see him as in his prime?