Every four years, those on the extreme ends of the political spectrum complain that the two mainstream candidates and their parties are almost identical. Both support capitalism which irritates the Marxists; neither intends to seriously cut the size of government which frustrates the libertarians; and in many other ways, almost all serious American politicians reflect most aspects of the political center because that's where the votes are. Great leaders sometimes move the political center as Reagan did and as Obama is trying to do; but the complaint that the candidates "offer no real choice", while not completely accurate, is not entirely without merit.
This year is no exception. As we've previously discussed, on the most significant issues facing our country, Barack Obama and John McCain, practically speaking, are so similar as to be identical.
Because of the nature and tendencies of the two parties, a McCain administration could be expected to move at a different pace than an Obama one, but aside from the finer details of their conduct of the "War on Terror," they'd move in pretty much the same direction.
The President is not just an office, however. The President is not merely the most powerful man in the world. He is, when it comes right down to it, a man like any other. He still puts his pants on in the morning - well, probably his butler does it for him, actually, but he does wear pants.
He has all the same tendencies to strength and weakness of any other man, as the first President Bush memorably illustrated in Japan. These strengths and weaknesses derive from the personal character of the man: the sum total of his childhood, his parents' instruction, his religious beliefs, the friends he chooses to associate with, and the various experiences life has set before him, large and small.
In this regard, Barack Obama and John McCain are as different as night and day.
In a recent Washington Post op-ed, Richard Cohen wrote:
"Just tell me one thing Barack Obama has done that you admire," I asked a prominent Democrat. He paused and then said that he admired Obama's speech to the Democratic convention in 2004. I agreed. It was a hell of a speech, but it was just a speech... I know that Barack Obama is a near-perfect political package. I'm still not sure, though, what's in it.
Barack Obama swept to national prominence on the back of an electrifying speech at the 2004 Democratic convention. There is no doubt that he is one of the greatest orators of our day. There is a big difference, though, between an ability to move audiences to Himalayan peaks of emotional Hope, and an ability to effect real Change in the real world so that Hope is realized.
An examination of Barack Obama's short career finds a shocking list of accomplishments: none whatsoever! There is no great legislation bearing his name. There is no issue on which he is an acknowledged expert. As Mr. Cohen pointed out, it's difficult to figure out what his core beliefs even are, except generally for a doctrinaire extreme leftism that would be comfortably at home on any university campus.
He's made a core part of his appeal a call for working openly across the aisle to do "what needs to be done" - yet has never actually done so, either in the Senate or in the Illinois legislature, nor has he listed those things that need to be done.
In complete contrast to Obama's vanishingly flimsy list of accomplishments, if there's one thing that characterizes the long life of John McCain, it's aggressive action.
His military exploits are well know to all. A list of major bills in the Senate bearing his mark could go on for pages - McCain-Kennedy (immigration amnesty), McCain-Feingold (campaign finance regulation), McCain-Lieberman (regulation of carbon emissions). Some of these legislative initiatives have passed, others not. All were statements of Sen. McCain's beliefs on issues of profound importance, on issues of grave national concern, and in which John McCain could be found in the trenches fiercely fighting his corner.
One of the reasons conservatives aren't fond of him is that he insists on fighting his own personal beliefs, which means that he's often such a fierce fighter on the wrong side as with the three bills listed above. Is there any issue, on either side, where Barack Obama is willing to fight for what he believes to be right? Even on his signature issue of an immediate withdrawal from Iraq, he has repeatedly hedged to extend out just how long "immediate" actually might turn out to be.
This lack of intestinal fortitude shows in political relationships, too. Over the course of this year, Obama has established an astounding reputation for casting aside people that were previously his friends but who became politically inconvenient.
Not a month after he gave a much-trumpeted speech in Philadelphia declaring his loyalty to the noxious Rev. Wright, the price paid in the polls became too great and he repudiated his former mentor. His early bankroller, Tony Rezko; Jim Johnson, head of Obama's VP search committee; Geraldine Ferraro, former VP candidate - all served Obama's ends while they could, then took their turn under the bus. Subvehicularization has been the foundation of Obama's campaign strategy to an extent never before seen; we can only wonder what the atmosphere at his campaign headquarters might be, in wondering who will be next.
On the other hand, John McCain is nothing if not loyal to those whom he chooses to be his friends. These aren't necessarily his fellow Republicans; if anything he seems to have a great many boon companions from the other side, Joe Liebermann chief among them. But how many allies have been disposed of as cavalierly as Obama's? The only one that comes to mind is Phil Gramm, and even he is reportedly still a close friend and confidant.
Loyalty to friends can be a two-edged sword. A much-criticized element of George W. Bush's administration is his intense personal loyalty to people who are loyal to him, regardless of their competence or lack thereof.
There is a time and a place for, regretfully but firmly, replacing those who have done their best but can't cut the mustard. However, you can shuffle the chairs around without "rejecting and repudiating" the people in them as Obama does routinely.
It makes you wonder, is there anyone Obama actually cares about other than himself and his immediate family? Can we be sure he actually cares about them other than as cute props for photo-ops? After all, his own "racist" grandmother was one of the first of his long-term associates to feel his bus-tires. No one would ever ask that question of John McCain, or of President Bush for that matter.
The last eight years have demonstrated conclusively that the world is far less predictable than it was during the Cold War. Back when the US and the Soviet Union were at nuclear daggers drawn, lesser powers were forced to sign up with one or the other.
Once a country or, to be more precise, the dictator of a country, was allied with one of the superpowers, the dictator could do pretty much anything he wanted to his own people provided he kept his nose clean with his sponsor. Saddam Hussein, Manuel Noriega, Fidel Castro, and any number of African "big men" come to mind. Having most national rulers in thrall to a big power made for a somewhat more predictable international scene than we have today.
In addition, China and India had effectively dealt themselves out of the world economy. The Chinese communist government was hostile to the very idea of business and the Indian bureaucracy had set up so many rules and regulations that few if any Indian businesses participated in the global economy. Since the fall of the Soviet Union, these two governments have effectively reversed their former politics, adding two billion new competitors to the global game of finance.
The world scene is far less stable than in the past. Total surprises can come out of nowhere at any time - who thought that Russia would invade Georgia during the Olympics? Thus, the most important question to ask about any candidate is, "How will he react to the unexpected?" or "How does he handle surprises?"
We've seen enough different personalities and temperaments in the White House to point out a few contrasts. It was an act of war under long-established international law when the Iranians stormed into the US Embassy in Tehran and held our people captive for more than 400 days. President Carter did essentially nothing; his rescue attempt was an ineffectual fiasco.
When Mr Reagan won the election, he made it clear that the Iranians had two choices: 1) free their kidnap victims before he took office or 2) take the consequences. The Iranians concluded that Mr. Reagan would enact a significantly more muscular response to their act of war than Mr. Carter had; they freed their victims as Mr. Reagan was about to be inaugurated.
Mr. Reagan later vindicated their judgment of his character by sending aircraft to fire Tomahawk missiles through Mr. Qaddafi's bedroom window; our President can do things like that for any reason or for no reason.
During the Vietnam War, anti-war folks put out a poster of a Hanoi hospital which had been damaged by US bombers. The caption read "Our president was angry..." Just so - our Presidents have the power to do that. Which of our candidates is best at keeping his temper - or which is best at making effective use of his temper?
President Clinton authorized bombing in former Yugoslavia during which we annihilated a Chinese embassy. He bombed a pharmaceutical plant in Africa; he famously sent million-dollar missiles to kill $10 camels. But he did nothing when the USS Cole was bombed.
Mr. Bush elected not to ignore 9-11; he declared a "War on Terror" and went at it. Whether you agree or disagree with his action, he certainly didn't just sit there like Carter or take a hit like Clinton, he had an entirely different personality.
Not one of these events were discussed during the election campaigns which preceded them. Nobody discussed bombing Qaddafi's palace, invading Panama, bombing Yugoslavia or occupying Iraq because those Presidential actions were responses to events unanticipated during the campaign.
Mr. Obama has discussed invading or attacking Pakistan, and not doing likewise to Iran. It's just as well for everybody to realize that declaring war on Pakistan or Iran has to be on the table; nobody knows what we might have to do to keep nukes out of terrorists' hands. The point is that it is highly likely that unanticipated events will occur during the next Presidential term.
When the chips are down, when we're close to "Nukes over the pole," personality and maturity count for a lot more than policy. The question on picking a President from the pack isn't just what policies the candidates advocate; on so many of those, McCain and Obama are scarily similar. The real question is, What sort of men are they... and are you sure about that?
We saw an example of an unexpected event this very week when Russia invaded Georgia. No, not that Georgia, the one with Atlanta as its capital - the other Georgia you've never heard of, whose capital is Tbilisi. (It's to the right of Turkey.)
There could hardly be a greater contrast between Sen. McCain's reaction and Sen. Obama's - McCain came out swinging at Russia, whereas Obama at first prevaricated and then called for the matter to be referred to the U.N. - in other words, he washed his hands of Georgia, since Russia holds a U.N. veto and would never permit the UN to do anything about their own invasion.
Next week may come a greater challenge. It would appear that the Ukraine may shortly be joining the war by preventing Russia from staging attacks on Georgia from Russian bases in the Ukraine. Russia won't like that.
We don't know what they'd do about it, but Ukraine is a pending member of NATO. The NATO treaty requires us to come to the aid of the Ukraine if they are attacked, and Russia certainly does seem to be in an attacking mood at the moment. If we let Ukraine into NATO, we may finally wind up in the shooting war with Russia that we thought we'd avoided; if we don't, though, Ukraine and all the rest can expect to be summarily sucked back into Moscow's control they thought they'd escaped.
The NATO treaty, foundation of all Europe's security for a half century, does not say that kvetching to the UN is sufficient. No, our treaty would obligate us to go to the defense of the Ukraine immediately - in fact, for almost all of Europe to, as the Baltic States are already lining up to do.
What do our treaties mean to Mr. Obama? Does he even know what a long-term commitment is?
Like him or not, we all know what sort of a man John McCain is. Barack Obama, well... who knows? His resume is so short that not even he knows how he'll react when the chips are down.