How McCain Makes Obama Conservative

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Both the major-party candidates for President have now made their first major decision — on a running mate — and I can't remember a year when the selections were more revealing about the character of the candidates. What we have is a choice between a conservative and a radical.

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The conservative is Barack Obama. He is a careful man, perhaps to a fault. His vice-presidential selection process was quiet, orderly and comprehensive. The selection of Joe Biden was no great surprise — he added experience to the ticket, a reliable loyalist and gleeful attack dog, a working-class Roman Catholic with a terrific personal story. The process was in keeping with the rest of Obama's candidacy: he has taken no great risks. His policy positions are carefully thought out and eminently reasonable, reflecting the solid middle ground of a Democratic Party that is more united on substance than I've ever seen it.

This small-c conservatism is, in part, a calculation. Obama doesn't want to seem angry or threatening, for obvious reasons. But it is also a reflection of who he really is: a fellow who does not like to disappoint anyone, who is obsessed with finding common ground. That may be a great advantage in a President at this ugly moment in our history — but I would feel more comfortable with Obama if he took an occasional play from John McCain's book of partisan transgressions and gored some Democratic oxen. It would be nice if he, say, challenged the teachers' unions, which didn't support him anyway and whose work rules choke out any chance of creative experimentation in the public-school system. Or if he stood against the atrocious Farm Bill, which spreads unnecessary fiscal fertilizer upon an already profitable industry. Or if he didn't feel the need to promise a tax cut to 95% of American families.

But Obama's weakness for undue prudence seems downright virtuous compared with the recklessness that McCain showed in choosing Sarah Palin as his running mate. He had months to make this choice, but he allowed it to come down to a chaotic scramble in the last week — a reaction, it seems, to the fact that the Republican Party elders had vetoed his first two choices, Senator Joe Lieberman and former governor Tom Ridge. McCain wasn't going to give the bosses the choice they wanted — Mitt Romney — and he cast about, deciding on Palin, an occasional maverick, at the last minute. He had never worked with the governor. He had spoken to her a few times. His team, it now seems clear, had not vetted her very well. In her first appearance alongside McCain, she claimed to oppose the "bridge to nowhere," that Alaskan icon of pork mythology, but she had supported the bridge until it was clear that the hullabaloo would prevent it from being built.

As the week progressed, it became apparent that Palin stood diametrically opposed to McCain on issues large and small. She passed a windfall-profits tax on the oil companies — the very sort of tax that McCain excoriated Obama for favoring — which successfully swelled the coffers of the Alaskan treasury. She didn't believe global warming was a man-made phenomenon; McCain had confronted Republican orthodoxy on that issue — boldly, at first, and timidly more recently.

Palin was a blatant porker when she was mayor of Wasilla, hiring a lobbying firm to rake in the projects; she was close to the corrupt megaporker Senator Ted Stevens, a frequent McCain adversary and champion of the mythic bridge. Rather than putting "country first," her husband had been a member of a local secessionist fringe group called the Alaskan Independence Party, whose slogan is "Alaska first," and Palin apparently attended or spoke at several of the group's meetings. Her lack of interest in foreign policy and national security was the opposite of McCain's obsession with such issues. She called the Iraq war a "task that is from God."

Indeed, it seemed Palin and McCain held common ground on only two high-profile issues — an admirable rebelliousness when it came to their party's hierarchy and their opposition to abortion rights. Given the fact that McCain's top two choices for Vice President, Lieberman and Ridge, favored abortion rights, it would not be unfair to conclude that McCain's devotion to this issue was more political than personal.

The Palin selection — peremptory, petulant — was another example of McCain's preference for the politics of gesture over the politics of substance, as is his sudden fondness for oil exploration ("Drill here, drill now.") and hair-trigger bellicosity abroad (Syria, Iran, Russia). His lack of interest in actual governance is disappointing; his aversion to contemplation seems truly alarming. He has done us all a favor with this pick: he has shown us exactly what sort of President he would be.