For Amy Rick, the 2008 presidential election is a win-win situation. Both Barack Obama and John McCain support an expansion of stem-cell research that she has battled for in vain under President Bush.
“Both are very solid,” said Rick, president of the Coalition for the Advancement of Medical Research. “We are definitely looking forward with optimism to a change in policy in 2009.”
John Isaacs, an arms control advocate, feels the same way, because both candidates have made nuclear nonproliferation a priority. “We’ll have major progress on nuclear issues no matter who is elected,” said Isaacs, executive director of the Council for a Livable World.
Stem-cell research and nuclear weapons are just two examples of a surprising but little-noticed aspect of the 2008 campaign: Democrat Obama and Republican McCain agree on a range of issues that have divided the parties under Bush.
On immigration, faith-based social services, expanded government wiretapping, global warming and more, Obama and McCain have arrived at similar stances -- even as they have spent weeks trying to amplify the differences between them on other issues, such as healthcare and taxes.
Even on Iraq, a signature is sue for both candidates, McCain and Obama have edged toward each other.
The result is that in many areas of policy, the general direction of the next White House seems already set, even if the details are not.
The centrist consensus on many issues underscores an important dynamic in the 2008 political climate: At a time of growing frustration with gridlock and partisan bickering in Washington, politicians with a pragmatic, middle-course tack are thriving. In both parties, the more strident, ideological presidential candidates lost in the primaries.
This development also shows how this presidential election differs from the last. Whereas both political parties in 2004 focused on mobilizing their most ardent supporters, this campaign’s battle is focusing on the political middle.
The convergence is in large measure a result of McCain’s record of defying the GOP party line. But Obama too has been tacking to the center lately on a number of fronts, including trade, government wiretapping policy and the death penalty.
“It debunks the common view that Obama is the most liberal Democratic senator,” Isaacs said. “And it debunks the view that McCain is really the third Bush term.”
To be sure, a McCain presidency would look far different than an Obama presidency. The two candidates have starkly different approaches to healthcare, Social Security and Supreme Court nominations, among other issues. But this makes it all the more surprising that in many areas the rivals are more or less aligned.
Initially, the war in Iraq was one of the hot-button disagreements. Obama made his early opposition to the war a cornerstone of his candidacy; McCain’s calling card has been his support for the war and last year’s troop increase. But in the course of the campaign, their differences have narrowed over the choices facing the next president.
McCain has repeatedly opposed setting timetables for withdrawing U.S. forces, but more recently he has said he wants most troops out by 2013 -- the first time he has mentioned a specific date.
Obama has repeatedly said he would withdraw troops within 16 months of taking office, but he has hedged in ways that would give him wide latitude: He says he will listen to military commanders, will react to events on the ground and may “refine” his plan after his upcoming trip to Iraq.
In other areas of policy:
Both McCain and Obama favor combating global warming with a “cap and trade” system. Under this plan, the government would set limits on emissions. Companies and others who emit gases below those limits would be able to sell credits to those unable to meet the targets.
On the future of nuclear power, the candidates are in the same neighborhood. McCain has laid out a plan to build 45 nuclear power plants. Obama has offered more general support, along with the caveat that a nuclear power expansion be coupled with a resolution on how to safely dispose of waste.
Both have parted ways with Bush and advocated stepped-up negotiations with Russia and other countries to reduce the world’s nuclear arsenal.
Both twice voted for legislation -- which Bush twice vetoed -- that would have eased federal restrictions on human embryonic stem-cell research.
Obama voted in the Senate on Wednesday for a bill, bitterly opposed by many liberals, to expand the government’s eavesdropping authority and to protect telephone companies that cooperate with the program from being sued. McCain was not present for the vote but has said he supported the bill.
Both embrace the idea of continuing Bush’s faith-based initiative, a program that funnels federal money to religious charities for social services.
Although those issues are not prominent in the campaign debate, the candidates are also converging on the major issue of immigration -- to the surprise and delight of immigrant advocates and businesses who depend on their labor.
“The best news all year is that after competitive presidential primaries in both parties, we end up with nominees on both sides who get it on immigration,” said John Gay, an official with the National Restaurant Assn. who heads a business coalition favoring a legalization plan for undocumented immigrant workers. “That was by no means a certainty when the campaign got started.”
Most of McCain’s rivals for the GOP nomination had criticized the idea of legalization as amnesty, and many campaign ads played on growing concerns about illegal immigrants.
McCain had been an early supporter of a legalization program for the estimated 12 million undocumented immigrants in the United States. During the primary, he distanced himself from that plan and said he had learned his lesson, that Americans want the border secured first.
But now McCain has shifted his emphasis again, indicating that as president he would push for broad legislation that tackles all of the country’s immigration troubles, including the legalization question.
Obama speaks more directly to the idea of legalization, and McCain addresses it in subtle terms, but advocates say the position is essentially the same.
“Sen. McCain never really repudiated his [original] position,” said Tamar Jacoby, who heads a business coalition called ImmigrationWorks USA. “Saying you’re going to do it in phases doesn’t mean you’re not going to do it.”