Analogies that won’t stick
By: Douglas Cohn and Eleanor Clift
By DOUGLAS COHN
and ELEANOR CLIFT
WASHINGTON — If the November election is a referendum on President Bush’s leadership, Sen. John McCain, R-Ariz., will lose. Democrats call the presumptive Republican nominee John McSame, and Sen. Barack Obama, D-Ill., says a McCain victory in November would usher in a third term for Bush.
McCain is no George Bush, but neither is Obama another Jimmy Carter, the label McCain wants to pin on his Democratic rival. Each side is trying to brand the other with the most unflattering analogy, and the initial brands are not going to stick. They’re too far from the mark.
The voters will demand more from the candidates and their campaigns. Take McCain. He and Bush hated each other and may still harbor ill will, papering over their differences for the sake of party unity. McCain backs Bush on staying the course in Iraq and keeping tax-cuts in place for the highest earners, but that’s where the similarity ends. McCain is a war hero; Bush ducked war though even now, 40 years later, the details remain controversial. McCain’s claim that he represents bipartisanship is backed up by evidence he crossed the aisle to join two of the most liberal senators in the Congress, Wisconsin’s Russ Feingold and Massachusetts’ Ted Kennedy. Bush formed alliances with Democrats in Texas, but rarely ventured out of his political comfort zone in Washington.
Equating McCain with Bush is a hard sell. McCain can point to many instances where he opposed the president, including his conduct of the Iraq war. McCain’s image as a maverick is strong with voters, and that makes tying him to Bush a stretch, though Democrats will try.
Morphing Obama into Carter is an even trickier assault. The two men have completely opposite backgrounds and paths to the presidency. Carter had executive experience as governor of Georgia; he had military experience, having served in the submarine service after graduating from the Naval Academy; and he had business experience as a peanut farmer. Obama never ran anything, unless you count his presidential campaign, and he came of age after the draft was lifted, so he had no obligation to perform military service. He worked on the streets of Chicago as a community organizer and attended some of the finest schools of higher learning in the country, Columbia University and Harvard.
The Carter analogy is meant to imply that electing somebody without traditional Washington experience is a gamble likely to lead to another one-term failed presidency.
Carter arrived in Washington determined to change things but met more resistance than he and his band of loyalists from Georgia were able to overcome. Carter did some good things, among them the peace treaty between Israel and Egypt, which endures today. He was the first to recognize the seriousness of the impending oil crisis, calling it the moral equivalent of war, but couldn’t harness the powerful special interests that have a stake in an economy running on cheap oil.
Other than Carter, you have to search the history books to find a president with as little solid Washington experience. Obama, if elected, will have served four years in the U.S. Senate, half of them in absentia because he was out campaigning. Obama, like Carter, is running at a time when the voters are fed up with Washington and looking for a different kind of leadership.
Before this campaign is over, Obama will be called another McGovern, maybe even another Mondale or Dukakis, three Democratic standard-bearers who lost landslide elections. McCain will be likened to Hoover, the Republican president who stood aside as the country sank into the Depression, and maybe even General U.S. Grant, a civil-war hero who led a corrupt administration. Analogies are never perfect, and for that we can be grateful.
Published in the Messenger 6.17.08
Douglas Cohn, Eleanor Clift editorial column