Obama and McCain at loggerheads on big issues

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Two weeks ago I expressed the naive hope that a US presidential contest between John McCain and Barack Obama might be a cut above ordinary politics. Neither man, to put it mildly, is the conventional type. Both are men of principle, with strong convictions – but with a pragmatic streak as well, open-minded, committed to bipartisan co-operation and running against business as usual. With luck, I said, they would treat each other with respect and steer clear of ad hominem smearing. For once there might be an election about the issues.

By Clive Crook

Perhaps I misspoke. Mr Obama, increasingly certain of his nomination as the Democratic candidate despite Hillary Clinton’s refusal to yield, has begun turning his attention to Mr McCain. His principal line of attack is that the Republican nominee stands for “four more years of George Bush”. Mr McCain, meanwhile, has fastened on his rival’s avowed willingness to meet rogue leaders such as Iran’s Mahmoud Ahmadi-Nejad “without preconditions” and charged him with a taste for appeasement.

So far, then, it is politics as usual. The “four more years” line is one more vapid slogan, a tactical alternative to engaging on the issues. The appeasement line may seem to point to a crucial substantive difference, and has been greeted that way by much of the press, but in reality is just as false.

Mr Obama, in case anybody wondered (and as his recent rowing back makes clear) is not going to meet anybody, friend or foe, without extensive talks among lower-level officials first. Obviously, if those talks suggest a looming failure or embarrassment, no top-level meeting will happen. Conversely, Mr McCain’s steely refusal to sit down with enemies would be nothing more in practice than a reluctance to do so publicly. Every government that takes this line pursues back-channel negotiations if it believes they serve some purpose. Think of Britain and the IRA, and the years of secret talks combined with expressions of disgust at any such notion. Think of the Bush administration’s inducements to Libya and North Korea.

This fuss about appeasement is less a disagreement over substance than about style and posture – not unimportant, I grant you, but certainly not the defining ideological difference each side purports it to be.

What then are the real disagreements and what are the chances that in due course they might be seriously debated? The subjects that most obviously divide the candidates are Iraq, trade, healthcare and taxes.

Though Mr Obama and Mr McCain appear poles apart on Iraq – one seeming to promise rapid withdrawal come what may, the other committed to stay for as long as necessary – the true difference is narrower, and getting more so. Mr Obama is more cautious of late, promising to look first at issues such as conditions on the ground. Mr McCain, who once talked of a 100-year commitment and excoriated Mitt Romney, his rival for the Republican party’s nomination, for so much as mentioning a possible timetable for withdrawal, is now predicting victory in Iraq during his first term, so that by 2013 “America will have welcomed home most of the servicemen and women.”

In fact, either man might prefer a tacit ceasefire on this subject. The Democratic base is hypersensitive to any manoeuvring by Mr Obama on the subject of preconditions (so to speak) to be fulfilled before withdrawal, but he knows he will have to offer some, if pressed, to satisfy moderate opinion. Mr McCain’s instinct to fight on regardless, on the other hand, just will not sell. Both are squirming on the issue and neither has much to gain from closer scrutiny of his policy. If a truce is impossible, a refusal to debate the substance – that is, to be clear about the circumstances in which the US can disengage – will serve.

In some ways, trade is a similar case. On the face of it, the disagreement is stark. Mr Obama appears to have sold out to protectionist sentiment in the Democratic party, whereas Mr McCain is a staunch and consistent free-trader. However, for general election purposes, Mr Obama will need to cool the anti-trade rhetoric a little. His own convictions (and his advisers’) point the same way. Again, this is awkward: the party rank and file will be alert to backsliding. Mr McCain is unlikely to bend on the matter but must know that in 2008 unwavering support for liberal trade is no election-winner. Once more, neither man has much to gain from raising the issue’s prominence.

From a tactical point of view, the intimately related issues of healthcare reform and taxes are different. Admittedly, as topics to front a political campaign, they have the drawback that they get very complicated, very quickly. On the other hand, here, more than elsewhere, Mr Obama and Mr McCain have an honest-to-goodness difference of ideology. Mr Obama (to borrow Mr McCain’s characterisation) wants to create a big new healthcare entitlement at taxpayers’ expense, and Mr McCain does not. The disagreement is real, not cosmetic; each candidate is convinced that he is right on the merits; and, most important, each is convinced that his position is politically advantageous.

Mr Obama believes that the US is ready, at last, to undertake a comprehensive reform of its broken healthcare system – and ready also to bear the cost. Mr McCain believes that much less radical change is what the country needs and wants. Unlike on Iraq,  or  trade, unforeseen contingencies and obligations to foreigners are not at issue. In that sense, at least, it is a plainer choice, as well as a momentous one. A serious debate is indeed called for. We shall see.

The Financial Times

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