It has become fashionable to lament the state of presidential politics and decry the tenor of campaigns. But in fact, this election has been a pleasant surprise. In the last debate, as the candidates discussed their respective health-care plans in some detail, the danger was that the American people would be turned off not by negativity but by boredom.
Compare this election to the one in 1988—when the Pledge of Allegiance, Willie Horton, flag factories and Belgian endives dominated the campaign. Or contrast the relatively brief appearance of William Ayers with the barrage of Swift-Boat attacks on John Kerry. Some of this is because the American people have clearly tired of slash-and-burn campaigns. But much of it is because the two candidates are men of decency and honor.
John McCain is brave, and this courage has manifested itself not simply in the prisons of Vietnam. Over the past two decades he has broken with his party and president on global warming, campaign finance, government spending and the use of torture. He has chosen, for the most part, to forgo the racial coding that the Republican Party had used for decades in its campaigns. But despite these tremendous strengths, as a candidate for president in 2008, he is the wrong man for the wrong job at the wrong time.
To watch McCain address the current economic crisis is to see a man out of step with his time. His responses have been a recitation of old slogans—cut taxes, limit the government, cut spending—that are largely irrelevant to today's problems. Does anyone really believe that tackling earmarks will get credit markets functioning? In some ways, McCain's intellectual fatigue reflects the exhaustion of the ideological revolution begun by Reagan and Thatcher. The country needs fresh thinking that is ready to accept new facts and new ideas. It's a new world out there.
On foreign policy, John McCain is a fighter. In fact, his bellicosity has increased over the past few years as he has discovered his inner neoconservative. He wants to keep the battle going in Iraq, speaks casually of bombing Iran and is skeptical of the Bush administration's diplomacy with North Korea. He wants to kick Russia out of the G8 and humiliate China by excluding it from that body as well. He sees a "league of democracies" locked in conflict with an alliance of autocracies. This is cold-war nostalgia, not a strategy for the 21st century.
McCain's problem is not only one of substance but perhaps more crucially of temperament. Throughout the campaign, he has been volatile and impulsive. He moves suddenly and unpredictably—one day suspending his campaign, the next urging that the chairman of the SEC be fired, the third blaming Democrats for the economic crisis. He apparently wanted to name as his vice presidential candidate Joe Lieberman, a pro-choice semi-Democrat with decades of experience, but then instead picked someone close to the opposite—Sarah Palin, a rabble-rousing ultraconservative with limited experience and knowledge of the issues.
By contrast, Barack Obama has been steady and reasoned throughout his campaign. After careful deliberation, he endorsed the administration's decision to intervene in the financial industry but with caveats—not to score campaign points but to make the program work better. These modifications were adopted by the administration and employed last week by Secretary Paulson.
Obama's broader economic agenda—health-care reform, infrastructure investments and a major push for alternative energy—are large solutions to the growing problems of our times. They are not radical, but neither are they overly constrained by the fear of seeming liberal. Bill and Hillary Clinton were always careful not to stray too far from the country's comfort zone. Obama is pushing to change the parameters of that zone. That's leadership.
On foreign policy, Obama is cool to McCain's hot, discriminating about the fights he wants to pick. He argues for greater international cooperation and the aggressive use of diplomacy. He sees a world in which America doesn't have to get adversarial with everyone and tries instead to work with other countries—of whatever hue—to solve the common problems we face.
Let's be honest: neither candidate has past experience that is relevant to being president, except that they have now both run large, multiyear, multimillion-dollar, 50-state campaigns. By common consent, McCain's has been chaotic and ineffective, while Obama has run a superb operation, and done so with little of the drama and discord that usually plague political machines.
This is the case for Obama on substance, which is the most important criterion. But symbolism is also a powerful force in human affairs. Imagine what people around the world would think if they saw America once again inventing the future. And imagine how Americans would feel if they saw their country once again fulfilling its founding creed of equal opportunity, if they saw that there really were no barriers in their country, not even to the highest office in the land, not even for a man with a brown face and a strange name.
I admit to a personal interest. I have a 9-year-old son named Omar. I firmly believe that he will be able to do absolutely anything he wants in this country when he grows up. But I admit that I will feel more confident about his future if a man named Barack Obama became president of the United States.