Wednesday, June 18, 2008

Obama and McCain


More than a week later it's still baffling. In fact, it's one of the more baffling lines ever uttered by a candidate laying claim to his party's presidential nomination. It came on the night Barack Obama clinched the Democratic nomination over Hillary Clinton.

"In just a few short months, the Republican Party will arrive in St. Paul with a very different agenda," he told the multitude before him. "They will come here to nominate John McCain, a man who has served this country heroically. I honor that service, and I respect his many accomplishments, even if he chooses to deny mine."

"Even if he chooses to deny mine." What's that all about? Obama stands at the hour of his great triumph. He's locked up the Democratic nomination, becoming the first African American to win a major party's presidential nomination. He's defeated the once-mighty house of Clinton. And he engages in a bit of narcissistic self-pity worthy of a teenager.

Obama, it seems, has come to believe his own gushy media notices. And he's in something of a snit that Republicans aren't so smitten.

Now, Obama's a charming man with an impressive resume—Columbia graduate, Harvard Law, former Illinois state senator, first-term U.S. senator, and best-selling author. He doubtless gives a good set speech. But elections are about comparisons, and it's a tad presumptuous of Obama to grouse about not getting equal treatment when it comes to his public service and accomplishments.

McCain has spent 25 years in Congress doing the kinds of things Obama has only talked about in speeches. That includes pushing bipartisan legislation (campaign-finance reform, climate change, terrorist interrogation techniques, and immigration reform), forging compromises (the Gang of 14 deal on judicial nominations) and breaking with his own party (all the aforementioned and his early criticism of the Iraq war's execution).

Now, I don't find much of this heart-warming. It's too bipartisan for me. But there it is. Obama, by contrast, has spent seven years in the Illinois senate before heading to the U.S. Senate in 2005. Almost immediately, he started running for president. Does his slim record reflect the post-partisan cooperation he talks up on the hustings? No. He was, for example, nowhere to be found when McCain was putting together the Gang of 14.

Does it suggest he has the experience to be president, much less be compared favorably to McCain? "Absolutely not," former Massachusetts Gov. Mitt Romney said earlier this month in Portland. "[I] think he's a very well-spoken, articulate, intelligent person, but I don't think he has the experience in the private sector and the public sector to be as effective a leader as John McCain. You see that in the number of times he says things which are troubling."—Obama's comments about bombing Pakistan, for instance.

Yes, Romney's a partisan; he's even mentioned as a possible McCain running mate. So let's reach across the aisle for an assessment of Obama and McCain's comparative public service. "Senator McCain will bring a lifetime of experience to the campaign ... " Hillary Clinton said during her campaign. "Senator Obama will bring a speech that he gave."

Even if Obama were a modern-day Henry Clay or Sam Rayburn and his legislative record matched his turn-back-the-tides rhetoric, it would still probably not be wise for him to mention McCain's denying his public accomplishments.

Why? Because McCain's service includes 5 1/2 years as a prisoner of war in Hanoi, complete with the poor medical care for the broken leg and broken arms he had upon capture, the beatings and torture, the breaking of his ribs and arm (again) and solitary confinement. A captivity that could have been shorter if McCain, the son of an admiral, had accepted Vietnamese offers to go home before the other POWs who'd been there longer.

It's unclear if McCain's experience in Vietnam and Washington, D.C., will matter this November. Voters may decide that all that has little to do with being president. They might choose Obama's pretty speeches. Fair enough. But, please, let's not pretend—let's not let Barack Obama himself pretend—that the two candidates' public service and accomplishments merit inclusion in the same sentence.

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