Election day remains four months' distant, presidential and gubernatorial inaugurals more than six months away. Both at the state and national level, the campaigns are doing what they usually do at this stage — attempting to define for the electorate both their own and the opposition candidates' personas.
Up until this point, they mainly have tried to nail down backing from key single-interest and single-issue goups within their parties. Now, with the Labor Day general-election kickoff coming, they are reaching out for the independent and moderate support which will make the difference between winning and losing in November.
What are these guys really like?
If you talk with their peers in Washington, D.C. and in their political parties, you will get candid comments regarding Sens. Barack Obama and John McCain which remove their magic.
Democratic senators and members of Congress tend to admire Obama's political savvy and speechmaking ability. But, no matter what their public postures regarding their party's nominee, many express resentment that someone so young and new as Obama has risen to the fore over many of them who have labored longer and have stronger, more substantive backgrounds than he does. Both Republicans and Democrats in Congress will tell you that McCain is an unpleasant, often nasty colleague, quick to denounce anyone who resists his willfulness. He is not a nice guy. But they do admire his readiness to challenge "earmark" and other spending and, thus, to upset the established, spoils-system order.
This should not be surprising. In 1960, for example, Sen. John F. Kennedy was seen by many of his peers as a charming if spoiled, no-show legislator being pushed toward the presidency by an ambitious father. Senate Majority Leader Lyndon Johnson, who would become JFK's running mate, launched a pre-convention rumor campaign suggesting JFK had tenuous health (in fact, the rumors were true). Kennedy defeated Sen. Hubert Humphrey, his principal rival in primary contests, in part by running strongly to Humphrey's Right. His supporters alleged that Humphrey, disqualified medically, had been "a draft dodger" in World War II. Yet Kennedy was generally well liked personally by his colleagues. Vice President Richard Nixon, the Republican nominee, was generally disliked by peers in both political parties and even by President Dwight Eisenhower. He was properly seen by his peers as paranoid, hyper-ambitious, and unscrupulous. Yet he eventually would win two presidential elections. Neither Kennedy nor Nixon would have been nominated in a secret-ballot election in which their peers voted. Never mind. They struck the right chord among the wider electorate, which makes such selections.
We should get over the idea that presidential candidates possess extraordinary competence or qualities of character. By and large, they are just like the rest of us, except that circumstance and ambition have thrust them into the limelight at a particular time. (McCain, for example, would have been out of the Republican nominating race in 2007 had the "surge strategy" in Iraq not unexpectedly stabilized that country). Some are high-minded and able; others are small-bore neurotics.
For whatever it is worth, Obama should be seen at this stage as articulate, promising, and unformed, McCain as stubborn, mediocre, and fully formed. Obama is the more intelligent of the two but not of dazzling intellect. McCain, nearly a quarter-century older, is what he is. If elected, his presidency would be less flexible or inventive than Obama's would be — for good or ill.
Also for good or ill: Obama, if elected, would condition his actions with a second term in mind. McCain, because of his age, would do everything with a one-term time horizon.
Obama, McCain personas are emerging and merging
Both Obama and McCain entered their parties' nominating contests portraying themselves as independent and "different."
Obama certainly was different to the degree that he was young, new on the national scene, and biracial. He spoke of reaching across partisan and ideological lines to solve unsolved national problems. His "Yes We Can" slogan implied many things, including the idea that a minority candidate could be elected president as well as the notion that partisan gridlock could be broken in the capital. He entered the Democratic nominating campaign with the most liberal voting record in the U.S. Senate. Yet, running against Sen. Hillary Clinton, he initially presented himself as the less doctrinaire, liberal candidate — except on the Iraq War, where he positioned himself as a stronger anti-war candidate than Clinton, who had initially voted for the resolution authorizing military intervention.
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