McCain vs. Obama

The general election debate takes shape.

John McCain and Barack Obama

Don’t blame me if the political conversation has suddenly skipped ahead to the general election matchup between Barack Obama and John McCain. Blame the candidates. Over the past several days, Barack Obama and John McCain have been going at each other as if they’d already been crowned.

Both men are behaving as if the general election has already started because they want to bring the primary season to a faster close. Obama acts as if the once formidable Hillary Clinton has been beaten in the hopes her supporters will believe him and give up. For those voters who wonder if Obama is tough enough to take on McCain, the Democratic front-runner is showing them how he’ll do it. McCain, whose nomination is the more secure of the two, is using those attacks to unite his party. He may not be able to rally conservatives with a new pitch on immigration, but they might like how he beats back the guy with the big rallies.

Here are the emerging arguments from both candidates:

McCain is old and in the way. John McCain could be Barack Obama’s father, which means if the election gets ugly, Obama might start calling his opponent pops. For now, though, Obama won’t play so much on the theme that McCain’s age makes him creaky and vulnerable to illness (it’s probably the case that McCain actually has more energy than Obama) but will rather frame the election as a competition between the past and present. He’ll use the same language about a new generation and turning the page against McCain that he has against Hillary. Obama is careful to herald McCain as a genuine war hero (which gets big applause from his Democratic audiences). But in doing so, he reinforces the idea that McCain should be celebrated in marble like the other past warriors.

Obama will tie McCain to the unpopular Iraq war and keep using the term Bush-McCain to describe his policies. His most powerful attack aims at McCain’s strength—his reputation for straight talk. In Obama’s victory speech after the Potomac primaries, he said he agreed with John McCain when he opposed the 2001 Bush tax cuts because they were skewed to benefit the wealthy. “But somewhere along the road to the Republican nomination, the Straight Talk Express lost its wheels,” said Obama, “because now he’s all for those same tax cuts.” There won’t be enough bad transportation metaphors to last us through the fall if the two face off against each other. McCain and Obama draw from the same pool of independent voters, and by attacking McCain’s reputation for candor, Obama is trying to erode the main reason those voters like McCain.

Obama is a liberal in love with himself. When you talk to McCain advisers about Obama, you have to remind yourself you’re not talking to people from the Clinton campaign. They, too, think the press has given the Democratic front-runner a pass and that his rhetoric of boldness isn’t matched by the quality of his policy prescriptions or punch of his ideas. “He is a conventional liberal,” is the dismissal from McCain’s top aide, Mark Salter.

McCain laid out his indictment against Obama on Tuesday in his victory speech. He never mentioned Obama by name. He didn’t need to. “To encourage a country with only rhetoric,” McCain said, “is not a promise of hope. It is a platitude.” It didn’t stop there. He essentially called Obama a chicken who minimized his exposure “to questions from the press and challenges from voters who ask more from their candidates than an empty promise of ‘trust me, I know better.’ “

McCain likes to turn political battles into moral crusades, which was why Mitt Romney’s phoniness so animated him. The moral spur in his fight with Obama appears to be his estimation of the young senator’s excessive ego. On Tuesday, McCain talked about the hope clung to as a POW as if to out-hope Obama, and then declared that the hope he and his comrades cherished did not come from an “exaggerated belief in their individual strength.” The inference of course is that Obama’s hope does. Later, McCain referred to his own callow flirtation with ego. “When I was a young man, I thought glory was the highest ambition, and that all glory was self-glory.” What cured him? The Naval Academy and his parents. Take that, Sonny Boy.

That McCain and Obama are already debating might seem discouraging for Hillary Clinton. She’s gone from being the inevitable candidate to having to elbow her way into the conversation. But she actually has an opportunity here. She could play off McCain’s remarks. If he’s looking for more than platitudes, she might say she has a detailed list of proposals to send over. That would at once repeat his charge against Obama and offer her a chance to show how she would match up against the same line of attack. Though Clinton hopes to defeat McCain in the fall, for now he is her ally.