By accident or design, the two parties have now presented the voters with candidates that almost perfectly represent their opposing views of a desirable future for America.
The Republican candidate, John McCain, is a 72-year-old white male who has served in the Senate for 22 years. The Democratic candidate, Barack Obama, is a 47-year-old African-American male who has served in the Senate for four years.
Mr. McCain is fairly described as a “moderate” Republican with a reputation for independence and a formidable temper. Mr. Obama hasn’t served long enough to map out a clear record, but he seems comfortable with the general liberalism of his fellow Democrats in the Senate.
The question, then, is which of the two more accurately reflects what the voters are looking for in a president to lead this country for the next four years. It is said the voters want “change,” and that would seem to favor Mr. Obama. But it is a president we are electing, and it is fair to ask exactly what kinds of change the voters are looking for.
Certainly, the McCain and Obama administrations would look, and act, very different from each other. A McCain administration would almost certainly be more “conservative,” not only in terms of policy, but in the broader matter of its general behavior. The Democrats propose to shake things up, and, in Mr. Obama, they will have a leader with that sort of temperament. We could expect more surprises and bolder initiatives from a President Obama. These would not necessarily, or primarily, be in matters of political policy (though there would be plenty of both), but in the subtler matter of tone. The fights in Congress would be livelier and longer, and the level of political rancor, in the nation at large, would almost certainly rise. Mr. Obama isn’t running to be the Peace President.
Do the voters sense this, and do they care? Reasonably enough, they want a president who will actually accomplish certain things, and we all know making an omelet requires breaking a lot of eggs.
At the same time, to change the metaphor, there is no evidence the public is in the mood to elect a real barnburner as their chief executive. The next few years will demand someone with a steady hand.
So it is important to determine, if possible, whether Mr. Obama’s style of leadership includes the ability to compromise - to settle for half a loaf, when necessary. Unfortunately, he has never served in an executive capacity, so he has no track record of that sort by which we can judge. And his four years in the Senate have not demonstrated (and, in fairness, are hardly long enough to have demonstrated) any comparable abilities.
This is thin gruel when we are picking a president. A chief executive must, first and foremost, have the capacity to lead. But, equally important, he must know when to slow down, when to back up and even when to go into reverse. America’s enemies will be all too eager to test his abilities in these areas, and even our friends will need to know (for their own sakes) how skillful he is in them.
The current complexities involved in our policy toward Russia’s small bordering state of Georgia illustrate the problem perfectly. Should we admit this Russian neighbor as a full-fledged member of the North Atlantic Treaty Organization (of all things), as a great many geopolitical strategists are seriously proposing? Or should we settle for pressuring Russia, economically and otherwise, to allow it a modest amount of diplomatic independence?
In any given year, a score of such decisions pile up on a president’s desk. It would be too much to ask a presidential candidate to have prior usable experience in every such crisis. But it would be nice, bordering on essential, to know he has the kind of temperament that can manage such a crisis when one confronts us.
William Rusher is a nationally syndicated columnist.