Handicapping Obama-McCain


Today’s question: Are John McCain and Barack Obama the right candidates for their respective parties? All week, the American Prospect’s Ezra Klein and the Atlantic’s Megan McArdle discuss what Americans can expect from the Obama-McCain contest.

Depends what you mean by ‘right’
Point: Ezra Klein

Mornin’, Megan.

Today’s topic is whether Barack Obama and John McCain are the right candidates for their respective parties. It’s a tricky question because it’s a vague one. What does “right” mean?

It could mean whether Obama and McCain are most representative of the ideological mainstream of their parties. In this, Obama is clearly the right candidate for the Democrats, but McCain is clearly wrong for the Republicans. Obama channels the Democratic Party’s frustration with the country’s drift toward militarism and imperialism-by-any-other-name. He not only opposes the Iraq war but has pushed a deeper critique of the country’s foreign policy discussion and its absurd and damaging fetishization of “toughness.” In doing so, he’s gone where the party is but where many of its politicians fear to tread. Meanwhile, his domestic policy is mainstream liberal, crafted in a way that it neither offends the left (save for his not-really universal healthcare plan) nor unsettles the center.


McCain, by contrast, represents mainly the wing of the Republican Party that adopted, as its core emotional commitment, an aggressive stance on the “war on terror” and all the satellite conflicts that fall within its supposed purview. On other issues, he’s been, for the right, unreliable at best. A cautious foreign policy realist in the 1980s, he emerged as a leading neoconservative in the ‘90s. Voting analyses placed him as relatively moderate in 2001 and ‘02, when he was enraged at the Republican Party that had rejected him, but saw him snap back to relative down-the-line conservatism after 2004, when he began seeking the presidential nomination. Save for the neoconservatives and maybe the pork busters, it’s not clear which portions of the conservative coalition can be truly confident that McCain is viscerally with them.

Or maybe “right” means most likely to win? In that case, McCain is certainly the right candidate for his party; he may indeed be the only plausible candidate Republicans could field. At a time when the party’s brand is mud and Republican ideas fare even worse, McCain has the personal credibility to break with old shibboleths and a reputation for independence that allows him to step outside of his party.

Obama, for his part, is clearly a remarkable political talent. But as the furor over the Rev. Jeremiah A. Wright Jr. has shown, running an African American in a country with a, uh, complicated relationship to race is hardly the safest bet. And as the vicious e-mails stating that Obama is a madrasa-educated Muslim show, running a dark-skinned man whose middle name is Hussein and whose background is cosmopolitan isn’t the easiest play. That said, Obama has raised startling quantities of cash, excited millions of new voters and proved an extremely talented candidate. The Democrats’ gamble may prove to be extremely smart.

But whatever definition of “right” you use, I think it’s fairly clear that these two candidates represent the best of their respective political parties. Both required their respective bases to swallow hard and overcome fear and mistrust. Both have exhibited, throughout their careers, a genuine commitment to bettering the political discourse. This week, the Economist put McCain and Obama on its cover with the headline, “America at its best.” Whatever my preferences between the two, I was inclined to agree.

Ezra Klein is an associate editor at the American Prospect. He blogs at

Different candidates, the same old fight
Counterpoint: Megan McArdle

Like you, Ezra, I have been struggling with what the word “right” means. If it is simply “who I happen to like,” then I concur with you: Obama is the right man for his party, and McCain is the wrong one. Obama is not only personally inspiring, but he also seems to have a deep understanding of the value of markets and transparency; he aims to fix outcomes, not tinker with the process. McCain, on the other hand, shows little respect for spontaneous free order or suspicion of expanded state power; he seems to think that the main problem with the government is that the wrong people are pulling the strings.

Strictly based on their electoral chances, I again agree that both parties got the right man. Obama is inspiring, unifying (well, mostly) and thoroughly likable. McCain represents the Republican’s best hope for shedding its association with the follies of the Bush administration.


In the end, though, I think the most important question is how these candidates set the stage for the future. Both parties are at critical moments. The Democrats are on the brink of a leftward turn that will, if they have judged their moment correctly, cement a political realignment and inch America in a more social democratic direction. The Republicans, meanwhile, are in disarray, almost all of their traditional political strengths completely undercut by the Bush administration.

Thinking about it this way, I’m not sure how good either of these men looks. Obama is distinctly to the left of the median American voter, and his biggest support base is further left than he is. It is hard to see how moving left will bring new voters into his party, and easy to imagine all the ways in which it could chase existing ones into the welcoming arms of the GOP. Those who feel that national healthcare and similar policies are being borne forward on the unstoppable tide of history would do well to remember that just four years ago, we were speculating about a permanent Republican majority. McCain, on the other hand, brings in a lot of centrist voters -- but has nowhere in particular he wants to lead them.

This election will see the same old fight: Republicans urging low taxes and Democrats urging more spending, particularly on national healthcare. The problem is, neither lower taxes nor substantial increases in spending look particularly politically plausible. By the time our next president submits his first budget, Medicare taxes will no longer cover the program’s spending, meaning Congress will have to allocate money from the general fund to make up the deficit. Soon thereafter, the Social Security surplus will peak and then begin rapidly declining until it swings into deficit, projected by trustees to occur in 2017. No matter who gets into office, the Bush tax cuts will have to (mostly) be undone. Unfortunately for Democrats, that won’t provide any money for new spending. New spending will require big tax increases, not just on the rich but also on the middle class. And I’d be shocked if they could find political support for that big new idea.

Megan McArdle is an associate editor and blogger at the Atlantic.

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