No matter how you look at it, Americans will choose their next president by assessing the top of the ticket, and, more specifically, the policies, the values, and the vision they espouse. Both candidates are now proposing an agenda of change, and experience is becoming less and less a decisive factor. The choice of Sarah Palin contributed to this new reality and the choice of Joe Biden helped reduce the vulnerability of Barack Obama on the experience issue. To better comprehend the choice involved, it will be essential that Americans compare John McCain and Obama far more than they do their respective running mates.
Since January, this blog has consistently identified change as the major factor in this election. This is why I have favoured an Obama victory, even over a strong and capable candidate such as Hillary Clinton. The change promoted by Obama is transformational, while Clinton promoted a more transactional version. I also believed that McCain represented the best choice and the best hope for the Republicans if they hoped to hold on to the White House, and argued that he was a change agent in his own party. Until the Republican convention, it was shaping up as change versus experience. But now it is all about change and the difference has to do with what kind of change.
Presidential elections have a lot to do with character and personality and there is ample evidence that this can be more important that policies. The management of an election campaign—which lasts close to two years—can illustrate to some degree the kind of administration the winner will implement. This is why it is fair to say that election campaigns in presidential contests do matter.
When we look at the character and personality of McCain and Obama, it is clear we can see contrasts. One represents a generation that lived the culture wars and participated in an actual war (Vietnam), while the other represents a post-Vietnam reality. McCain is said to be pre-baby boomer and Obama, while chronologically a baby boomer, represents the so-called millennials. It is said that an Obama victory will result in a generational shift; we can now assume that, should McCain win and Palin become vice-president, the Republicans will have provided their version of a generational shift. Overall, however, both McCain and Obama represent fundamental, time-tested values of family devotion and love of country. Choosing on the basis of values will be difficult because each in their own way passes the presidential test.
The difference has more to do with the orientation each would bring to the country. Here, the contrasts are also evident but they are much more determining. On tax cuts, McCain would continue the Bush program while Obama would bring middle class tax relief. On the economy, there is nothing significant in the McCain plan for stimulus other than what has already been proposed by George W. Bush. Barack Obama, on the other hand, clearly seems to be heading in a different direction and his challenge will be to communicate it in ways that contrast sharply with the position of the McCain-Palin ticket. He has not accomplished this as of yet. On the question of energy independence, John McCain is a late convert to offshore drilling and to alternative energy sources, but after 26 years in the Senate and a voting record contrary to his current positions, it is difficult to be convinced that change is on way. Obama does not exclude offshore drilling, but presents a more comprehensive package that appears more in-line with the compelling plan presented by oil billionaire T. Boone Pickens. Obama’s goal of reduced dependence on foreign oil seems less improvised than that of his opponent.
The issue of healthcare is probably the area where McCain and Obama differ most. Back in 2000, McCain and Bush promoted essentially the same policies they are promoting today. Greater tax credits and greater choice, but very little about accessibility, coverage, and nearly nothing about compassion for those uninsured. At that time, Al Gore and Bill Bradley, both Democrats, were arguing for greater coverage, more compassion, and a more active government role in reducing the number of uninsured. They were not promoting Canadian-style medicare—they were advocating direct access to the existing government programs offered to government employees and access to new programs. In the year 2000, we spoke of 36 million people who were uninsured in healthcare. Eight years later, we are at approximately 45 million. McCain offers fundamentally the same approach that he advocated in 2000, but Obama’s policy is seen as a realistic and attainable plan which would reduce and possibly eliminate the number of people who have no health insurance. He intends to support this approach by eliminating the Bush tax cuts that favour the rich—cuts that are now endorsed by McCain.
Regarding the war in Iraq and Afghanistan, we can argue that their current positions are starting to converge. Obama’s idea of a timetable for withdrawal is favoured by the Iraqi government and is looked on favourably by the Bush administration. McCain does not favour a timetable, but agrees with Obama that more troops must be deployed to Afghanistan. The big difference between the two has less to do with the possible end of the wars, but more with the beginning of those conflicts. Both McCain and Obama agree that the war in Afghanistan was a good decision while Iraq is another matter. McCain was for the war before it began and now takes credit for the surge and its success. Obama was against the war and argued that going into Iraq would mortgage success in Afghanistan and victory against Al-Qaeda. The evidence suggests Obama was right and the American population seems to agree.
Granted, there has been some excitement in the past ten days around the McCain-Palin ticket. Yet, when we probe deeper, we see clearly that McCain intends to continue along the same intellectual path on all the major issues affecting the United States over the past eight years. I like McCain, and I believe he is a fine man, but should he win the election, change would be mostly in tone—and perhaps in manner—but certainly not in substance. An Obama-Biden victory would clearly represent a break from the past policies promoted by the Bush-Cheney administration. Will America be different in four years? Will it regain its moral leadership in the world? The choice is between where we are and where we want to be.