Last week saw an event in our politics so giddy that we have yet to absorb its implications. Hillary Clinton, flush from her "comeback" in Ohio, told reporters that John McCain inspired her confidence on foreign policy; McCain had certainly "crossed the commander-in-chief threshold." She herself had crossed it, too, she said; but as for Barack Obama, "you'll have to ask Senator Obama" whether he is really prepared to serve as commander-in-chief.
Puzzling: a contender for the Democratic nomination, praising the Republican nominee as preferable to her Democratic rival. It was a rash act and probably unprecedented. Joe Lieberman did something like it, but only after he declared himself an "independent."
Nor was Senator Clinton finished. In the same session with reporters, she glowed at the thought of herself and John McCain together. "Both of us will be on that stage having crossed that threshold," she said. And again: "I think you'll be able to imagine many things Senator McCain will be able to say. He's never been president, but he will put forth his lifetime of experience. I will put forth my lifetime of experience. Senator Obama will put forth a speech made in 2002."
As other observers have noted, this is the kind of thing you say if you are John McCain's running mate, not what you say if you mean to campaign fiercely against him. It was a remarkably destructive statement--a defection from party loyalty, and a subversion of the principle that is supposed to underlie such loyalty.
To speak so emphatically about the president's role as commander-in-chief is to speak in code. It means all of the following: that war is the foremost thing in our minds when we think of any president; that this is especially so because we are now entangled in a necessary war on many fronts; that what we look for in a president is "a war president" (George W. Bush's description of himself); that the war in question is indeed the "global war" initiated by President Bush; and that a worthy commander-in-chief must be an enthusiast for the perpetuation of that war.
Hillary Clinton is the social-democratic candidate of the war establishment.
John McCain is the right-wing candidate of the war establishment. Both Clinton and McCain know this. They look on each other kindly, and share a disdain that borders on contempt for Barack Obama.
Obama cannot not join them on that stage. No: he cannot make a third on that "threshold" (as Mrs. Clinton oddly called it). He could not beat them at their game, even if he wanted to. But in this year, when so many lives have already been lost for the wrong ideas, if there is to be a contest over ideas and not just persons, Obama will have to show in every speech how wide is the gulf that separates him from Hillary Clinton and John McCain.
Obama's campaign is haunted by a fear of "going negative." Obama, it is said, has made a certain high-mindedness his touchstone. Yet to mount a strong attack on the "war presidency" will hardly undercut his proper fame as a politician of greater candor, probity, and gentleness than Senator Clinton. Hillary Clinton's sharpest attacks will always be directed against Obama, and those attacks will have to be sharply answered--Obama cannot play the part of the statesman above the battle until he is elected. And there are occasions (such as the mental and moral lowness of the "red phone ad") when a mere concern for truth warrants an impassioned response. But her attacks on him should not distract him from his larger work of opposing McCain.
These two contests are really one contest. It is Senator Clinton who has spent the past week tying herself to John McCain as fast as McCain could tie himself to the purse and leading-strings of George W. Bush. They have thus simplified Obama's task. The most direct and appropriate way for Obama now to run against Hillary Clinton is to run against John McCain.
Treat McCain as the opponent, and Clinton, with all politeness, as the ghost on McCain's threshold. If she dares to follow Obama into opposition again, let her try; but here Obama is the one with the "lifetime of experience."
An open run against John McCain, starting now, will also be a referendum on the presidency of George W. Bush. Because, to repeat, McCain has pinned himself to Bush just as Clinton has pinned herself to McCain.
Every honest accusation against George W. Bush, as things now stand, becomes a challenge to McCain to diverge from Bush in some particular; but if McCain budges an inch to criticize Bush, he exposes himself as a hypocrite for having warmly defended Bush's policies, and for a great many superfluous favors on both sides: the "hug" that helped to re-elect Bush in 2004; the endorsement of "the surge" that baited a bigger trap for the U.S. in Iraq; the acceptance of Bush's political, moral, and financial support, on which McCain's campaign in
2008 will be predicated.
Hillary Clinton's evident pleasure in the company of John McCain goes naturally with her reluctance to attack President Bush in any but the most general terms. This fact would be fairly brought to light if Obama now turned to make his case in detail against the Bush administration, with an informed judgment of the cost in destruction it has brought to America and to the world.
Let us never forget the moment when we saw this president's first reaction to Hurricane Katrina, or rather his first series of reactions. We had a glimpse of the abyss then--of a leader singularly wanting in comprehension, foresight, and competence (and any proper respect for competence in others); of a staggering deficiency of humane feeling, and an irreparable loss of contact with reality. All this, Americans learned once and for all when Katrina hit New Orleans; but the world had seen it when George W. Bush hit Baghdad. And John McCain heartily endorsed and Hillary Clinton authorized that war.
This is not, finally, an election of the new against the old. It is an election about the place of America in the world of nations, and whether we are to be known primarily as a dreaded superpower. It is an election about catastrophes, both natural and man-made. It is the election of Katrina and Baghdad.