Why McCain can't let Obama run against Bush

By Prof. Thomas Velk on August 21, 2008

George Bush is not running for President, but Barack Obama is running against him anyway. With every call for change, the charismatic young Senator reminds the electorate that he is not merely anti-Bush, but The Anti-Bush. Every argument for electing Obama can be reduced to an argument against Bush, and every line in the candidate's bio is the logical opposite of its corresponding number in the President's vita. Bush is pro-war, Obama is anti-war. Bush is white, Obama is not white, etc. Audaciously enough, Obama hopes that an electorate, unhappy with the current president, will fall for the following syllogism:

 Bush has been a bad president.

 Obama is the opposite of Bush.

 Therefore, Obama will be a good President.

 But, are Obama and Bush really all that different? Like Obama, Bush exploited anti-incumbant sentiment in 2000, but the differentiation he sought was primarly on questions of character (read: marital fidelity). The real change Bush had in mind was a reimagining of conservatism as a political philosophy not antithetical to big government. In this regard Bush has been a once in a generation agent of change. To the gathering dismay of liberals and libertarians alike, Bush transformed the office of the presidency - expanding executive power and experimenting with heterodox policies to fight terrorism (democracy building), provide social services (faith-based initiatives), and improve education (No Child Left Behind). Not since Teddy Roosevelt has the Republican Party so openly embraced elements of the progressive agenda, repackaged for a new generation as compassionate conservatism.

 The Bush legacy can thus be undone in two ways. The next president could opt to roll back executive power -- restoring Constitutional checks and balances to their pre-Bush equilibruium. Alternatively, he could harness the awe inspiring power of a war-time executive to usher in a new era of progressivism. Those who cherish liberty hope against hope for the former. If only Obama were as unlike Bush as he would have us believe.

 Of course, the Democrats' standard bearer has no interest in challenging his party's orthodoxy. The rookie Senator built a platform on the bedrock of generic progressivism that now passes for conventional wisdom among media and academic elites. Obama sees the answers to the great questions of economic growth, national security, and public administration in the playbooks of Carter and Dukakis and the textbooks of Krugman and Keynes. If Bush is a latter day Teddy Roosevelt -- Barack is Franklin D.

 Enter John McCain.

 As much as he'd like to, Obama is not running against George Bush. His adversary is, ironically enough, the man who came closest to smothering compassionate conservatism in its crib back in 2000. Will McCain bring change? His mix of policy preferences is far from purely Republican. (Until recently) too Green to drill the 2000 acres of Alaskan snow that cover ten years worth of American oil; too much a populist to know that "speculators" have, in comparison with supply and demand, little to do with gasoline prices. He's too conservative to believably deliver an Obama-style, tub thumping, Amen inducing, sermonizing "yes we can" speech to a congregation of adoring never-yet voted twenty-somethings, but independent enough to have been offered a spot on John Kerry's ticket in 2004. McCain is a unique character, above party label, but Obama's got a syllogism for him too. It goes like this:

 Obama is the opposite of Bush.

 McCain is running against Obama.

 Therefore, McCain is the same as Bush.

Conscious of his outsider status among the Party's base, the maverick McCain has hesitated to reject this mischaracterization, but it's high time he reminded the hope smitten electorate that he's his own man. While he's at it, he might try outing the Obama candidacy for what it is – a throwback to the big government liberalism of democratic administrations fast on track to take over the reins of a super-empowered executive branch.


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