Daniel Larison says he's not sure why I think it's at all remarkable that Obama debated most foreign-policy issues on Republican terms last night. Perhaps I gave too much peronal credit to McCain, but I do think there is a very clear pattern that was evident in last night's debate: Republicans "me too" Democrats on domestic policy because they think they have to politically; Democrats feel the same need to seem like watered-down Republicans on national security.
Now, it's true that this predates the Obama-McCain race. Although the Democratic brand on foreign policy is George McGovern, the actual Democratic foreign policy establishment is more Joe Biden -- softly neoconservative with some partisan bluster about doing a better job and bringing more friends. But the Democratic critique of the GOP on foreign policy began to harden with Howard Dean and hardened considerably by the 2006 elections (though the contrast even then was much clearer on Iraq than on Iran, Russia, China, etc.). Democrats have mostly resumed the defensive crouch since being in power. The Democrats never developed a clear response to Republican arguments that the surge was an unambiguous success, they never crafted a coherent alternative in dealing with Iran, and they don't even have a language to talk about anti-terrorism efforts besides shouting "Afghanistan," which was relevant in 2001-03 but is much less so now. The biograpical differences between Obama and McCain, and McCain's insistence on pressing them, gave this added emphasis last night.
On economic policy, John McCain is running as Barack Obama without the tax increases, earmarks, and universal health coverage. On foreign policy, Barack Obama wants to be John McCain without making anybody mad. It is very difficult to win a debate entirely on your opponent's terms.
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