If Barack Obama is looking for suggestions on how to run against John McCain, he could do worse than those offered by TNR‘s Jonathan Chait. But Chait frequently overstates his case.
Take Chait’s second item: “Emphasize [Obama’s] bipartisan compromises.” In almost every instance, we are talking about uncontroversial consensus legislation that did not require him to take a stand against the left or a major constituency of his party. The best that can be said is that on ethics reform, he sided with good-government liberals and conservatives against Beltway status quo types. McCain, by contrast, bucked his party’s consensus on campaign finance reform, climate change, taxes, immigration, and interrogation techniques. I think McCain is wrong on every issue except for the last one, but he did make bipartisan compromises that actually came at a partisan cost. Obama’s compromises are largely cost-free.
Or Chait’s third bullet point on striking terrorists in Pakistan. I’m not aware of any evidence that “follow bin Laden to the gates of hell” McCain is categorically opposed to snatch-and-grab operations in Pakistan. Obama was criticized for the following sentence: “If we have actionable intelligence about high-value terrorist targets and President Musharraf won’t act, we will.” This was interpreted as endorsing incursions into Pakistan regardless of whether doing so might destabilize the government in Islamabad, to the benefit of Islamists. I for one welcome the realization that invasions of foreign countries filled with bad guys can have dangerous unintended consequences. In any event, the Bush administration has opposed and carried out snatch-and-grab operations depending on the circumstances. My sense is that a McCain or Obama administration would do the same.
Chait is on somewhat firmer ground with McCain’s policy reversals: there have been plenty since the Republican primaries began (though, as Phil pointed out on the main site, Obama isn’t immune from this charge either).But even some of these are exaggerated. McCain, as some of us predicted, has been shifting back toward his original immigration stance, with modifications. He is still on record as being in favor of cap and trade. Chait also counts as a flip-flop McCain’s unwillingness to pick a fight over the pro-life plank in the Republican platform. But McCain hasn’t actually changed his policy position on abortion. McCain will be the fourth consecutive nominee running on this platform plank who would allow abortion in cases of rape and incest. Only Ronald Reagan opposed abortion without these exceptions. The human life amendment hasn’t seriously come up since 1984, when it got just 49 votes in the Senate.