Forget all the pundit chatter about post-partisanship, maverick candidates, and New Media driven campaigns. The 2008 presidential race is shaping up to be a nice old-fashioned race between a conservative and a liberal, indeed an ultra-liberal who makes the conservative seems more conservative with each passing day.
On the Democratic side, Barack Obama is pulling away to victory. In perhaps her final contribution to Republican solidarity Hillary Clinton called Obama’s bluff and did the GOP a great service. By ridiculing his empty rhetoric and messianic style of politics, Clinton forced Obama to show his hand.
After his victory last week in Wisconsin and again at the Austin debate, Obama revealed himself to be the most liberal candidate since George McGovern. He is not thrilled with building a border fence. He wants to meet with Raul Castro. He will raise taxes and spend a boatload of money on new programs. He will exit Iraq pronto and spend that money on domestic programs. He opposes any restriction on partial birth abortion and thinks the District of Columbia’s total handgun ban is a “common sense” regulation.
This is no “third way” and, other than a few rhetorical flourishes, there is no sign of “reaching across the aisle.”
By comparison, John McCain is running as a conventional conservative. He at least is interested in border security first. He has offered a no-new-taxes position. He will stay in Iraq as long as needed to achieve a stable, functioning state which does not harbor terrorists. He will appoint conservative judges. He reaffirmed his commitment to the Second Amendment by signing on to the Congressional amicus brief to the Supreme Court urging the District of Columbia handgun ban be struck down.
If not exactly the embodiment of Ronald Reagan, he is at least on a par ideologically with all the Republican presidential nominees since Reagan.
HOW DID WE ARRIVE at this very familiar political alignment? On the Democratic side, the answer is quite simple. Just as in 1972, in reaction to a war intensely opposed by the Party’s base, the more dovish liberal got the upper hand.
Obama was clever, attractive and verbally adept enough to disguise his underlying philosophy in a haze of rhetoric about “turning the page” and “change.” However, it is increasingly clear that the departure he intends to make is, in main part, one from the Clintonian “triangulation.”
There is a reason why Obama gained Ted Kennedy’s endorsement: He is the perfect messenger for an agenda Kennedy has been waiting 40 years to enact.
On the Republican side, McCain’s platform of fiscal discipline and national security evoke more Barry Goldwater than Reagan. Although he broke with conservatives on a variety of issues from immigration to campaign finance reform, McCain’s nomination should not disguise an underlying fact: the Republican Party remains conservative (and unified) on big ticket items like taxes, national security and judges. It is not surprising then that the nominee would carry a lifetime American Conservative Union rating of over 80.
The contrast between the two men belies one of the premises of Obama’s candidacy: that Washington is full of “good ideas” waiting to happen that are maliciously put to death by impersonal forces (“partisanship”) or the ever-present evil lobbyists.
In fact, there is little agreement on what is a good idea in Washington and the two parties still represent two strikingly different views of public policy. Low or higher taxes, less or more spending, more aggressive or more timid foreign policy, and less or more activist judges. These are real differences and consequential ones for the country.
So it should not be surprising that despite puddles of ink spilled in the media and millions spent in campaign ads to convince us that these candidates depart wildly from past contenders, we face a very familiar choice.
It may not be a sea “change” in American politics, but it is healthy to have clear choices, a robust debate on the merits and a definitive mandate from the voters on the country’s direction. That, it seems, is what we will get.