An Election About Nothing (II)

Eve Fairbanks, on the debate:

McCain and Obama are two of the most exceptional political figures of their generations, so expansive in their own visions of what they represent. But you wouldn't have known that if you were, say, a Martian tuning in to this campaign for the first time. Neither of them really faced the bailout head-on, sharply differentiated themselves from the other, or (most disappointing of all) tried to offer a big argument or central narrative about what's wrong with the country. Sometimes, their positions even seemed to converge. The two of them reminded me of a bickering older couple that's lived in the same familiar space so long -- the campaign -- that they've stopped arguing about the big things (do we move? have a baby?) and are now litigating the color of the salt shakers.

The whole debate was weirdly imitative. You brag about your soldier's bracelet, I'll brag about my soldier's bracelet! Obama was more afflicted with this imitation disorder -- he called for giving Georgia and Ukraine NATO Membership Action Plans "immediately," a stance Sarah Palin was derided for taking in her interview with Charlie Gibson, and McCain has already released a post-debate ad featuring clips of Obama agreeing with the senator from Arizona. But what happened to the aggressive, hot McCain who loved to rib Ahmadinejad? McCain sounded awkward and reined-in on Iran, while on meeting sketchy heads of state -- a question on which McCain's and Obama's instincts seem naturally and sharply opposed -- the two men sounded as though they'd nearly converged (yes, you reach out; no, you don't get on a plane as soon as Kim Jong Il sends you a text message). "I'm not parsing words," said Obama. "He's parsing words, my friends," retorted McCain. "I'm using the same words your advisers used," huffed Obama.

He's parsing words, he isn't parsing words, let's call the whole thing off. The two guys fought all night in the weeds, tussling Talmudically over Henry Kissinger, the difference between a "strategy" and a "tactic," Obama's exact earmark request, and our official designation for the Republican Guard, without stepping back to explain what was really at stake in their differences of opinion ...  

The only part of this I'd quibble with is the "sometimes": I think their positions converged a lot more than that. Jim Antle and Daniel Larison went a few rounds on the question of whether the McCain-Obama convergence on foreign policy is unique to this election, or whether it represents the same kind of thing that we've seen in elections past; either way, though, the convergence is real - on Russia and Iran, Iraq and Pakistan, the two candidates are largely debating (ahem) tactics rather than strategy. And the same goes for the bailout (for it) and earmark reform (for it), which took up the bulk of the remaining time on Friday night. No doubt we'll see more significant clashes in the debates to come, since the two candidates' positions on health care and taxes do actually diverge considerably. But the first debate had the advantage of focusing on the most immediately pressing issues facing America - whether we should bail out the financial industry, and then what we should be doing about the quadruple problem of Iraq, Iran, Russia and Pakghanistan - and on those fronts, the candidates' positions offer us more of an echo than a choice.

This doesn't mean that they won't be radically different Presidents, especially where foreign policy is concerned: Obama might turn out to be the passive ditherer that right-wingers fear he'll be, standing idly by while Iraq slides back into chaos and a nuclear-armed Iran bestrides the Middle East, and McCain might prove just as much of a Russophobe warmonger and "bomb, bomb, bomb Iran" nutjob as lefties (and paleocons) expect. But if you're a voter trying to weight the likelihood of either scenario, you have to make the judgment based on style and personality; on substance, the two men are showing very similar cards.