The latest tendency with pundits is to interpret Barack Obama’s tight lead as a sign of reluctance among Americans to buy into the senator’s message of hope and change. They go on to assert that this election is really a referendum on Obama. It is as if there is no one else on the ballot.
There is no doubt that Democrats will still control Congress after the November election. This has a lot to do with out-of-touch Republicans, corruption scandals, and general incompetence in dealing with the war effort and the economy. Additionally, Bush’s personal unpopularity adds to the voters’ disenchantment with the party that dominated Congress from 1994 to 2006. If Bush were on the ballot, Obama’s lead would be in double digits.
But Bush is not on the ballot. McCain is, and he is a different kind of Republican. He is a reformer in the Theodore Roosevelt and Ronald Reagan tradition—an ardent conservative who speaks from the right but will govern closer to the center. He is a patriot, a hero, a man of character and substance. His very qualities eliminate any free pass for Obama.
This election is based on change—and not the kind where Americans are asked to choose between the status quo or and a rival party. Rather, the choice is between different brands of change. Whether we like it or not, the real rival to change is doubt. When an incumbent runs for re-election, like Eisenhower, Reagan, Clinton, and Bush, doubt is directed at the challenger. In this election, doubt is directed at both candidates.
Choosing a president is serious business, much more serious than choosing a senator or a congressman. National security, the economy, and issues like healthcare are national in scope. It is normal that, with no incumbent seeking a second term, Americans have concerns and express uncertainty. That is why we have campaigns.
Negative ads like the latest ones by McCain are part of the process. Risky moves like Obama going overseas are meant to answer questions about his capacity to govern. Obama’s response to Pastor Wright allowed us to measure the character of Obama, just as McCain’s support for the surge when it was unpopular was also evidence of character.
While both candidates are men of substance and policy, they are fundamentally character candidates. The voters currently have layers of doubt and, as the campaign moves on, these layers will either disappear or thicken. That Obama is carrying a modest lead has less to do with whether it is a referendum on him and more to do with the fact that doubt is really the current rival on the ballot—and he is addressing it reasonably well.
People are judging McCain as much as Obama these days. This may explain why pro-McCain types are criticizing their candidate’s negative ads. They are right to do so because, in the long run, it brings doubt about who John McCain really is. And that doubt is the biggest threat to his success.