Primary Considerations

Sunday, January 27, 2008

CONTRARY TO most expectations, it's possible that the Feb. 12 presidential primaries in Maryland, Virginia and the District will count for something. On Feb. 5 the voters in more than 20 states, including New York and California, might settle the nominations, but they might leave the races as fluid as ever, in one or both parties. So this seems a useful time for a midcourse assessment.

We start, as do many voters, with the truisms that the world is a dangerous place and that the United States needs a leader with the fortitude and wisdom to navigate its dangers. That means the ability not only to guide the nation in its wars in Iraq and Afghanistan and against al-Qaeda but also to find the right balance between security and human rights; to combat climate change, global poverty and disease; to bolster liberty against rising authoritarianism in Russia, Iran, China and many other nations; and to restore America's respect in the world with strength tempered by humility. At the same time, a leader must encourage economic growth while ameliorating inequalities at home.

For the challenge of keeping America safe, the leading Democrats would be improvements over the incumbent in important ways. They recognize the importance of fighting terrorism but with a balanced view of other threats and problems. They promise to put more faith in diplomacy than has the current administration while understanding that diplomacy alone cannot solve every problem. On a wide range of other issues, including climate change, health care and tax reform, they promise to restore balance and common sense missing under the current administration.

On some issues, the three leading Democrats are almost equally disappointing. On certain topics -- among them trade, school accountability and, most disturbingly, Iraq -- facts and reason have given way to vote-seeking ideology. The refusal of the candidates to acknowledge the indisputable military progress of the past year is troubling; even more so are their suggestions that they would withdraw most or all U.S. troops from Iraq within a year regardless of the circumstances or consequences. They speak as if this strategic, even pivotal Middle East nation, with the world's second-largest oil reserves, can simply be written off, as if a war that they regard as wrong has somehow made Iraq unimportant to U.S. security.

But if they differ only marginally on such issues, they offer widely divergent visions of leadership. Of the three, former senator John Edwards has presented the poorest argument for himself. His remodeling from sunny Southern moderate to angry Southern populist is unpersuasive both as theater and in substance. His single Senate term would offer scant evidence of presidential stature even if he were not now repudiating key votes he cast then, such as on Iraq and bankruptcy reform.

Sen. Hillary Rodham Clinton has made a strong case for competence and expertise. This should come as no surprise. She showed, in two Senate campaigns in New York and in her Senate service, that she can appeal to voters of all stripes and work with politicians across the spectrum. Eight years as first lady and seven as senator have given her a sophisticated understanding of the world. As president, she could get things done.

And then there's Sen. Barack Obama, the most exciting entrant in this year's field. He offers his early opposition to the Iraq war, which we and the other candidates supported, as evidence of prescience and good judgment. He also dangles a tantalizing vision of a nation shattering old barriers of race, party and interest group to work together in a new unity of purpose. This promise rests not on his platform, which is standard liberal Democratic fare, but on his person -- his eloquence, his inclusiveness, his ability to listen and to lead, and his own transcendence of old racial politics. For Americans sick of a government stymied on entitlement reform, climate change, immigration and so many other issues, it's an alluring vision.

To date, Ms. Clinton has shown herself to be steely, disciplined and resilient. Unfortunately, that has been accompanied in recent weeks by a disturbing whiff of the win-at-any-price mentality that has characterized some of the Clintons' operations over the years. The growing public role of her husband, the former president, is unsettling. The tone of his comments about Mr. Obama has not befitted a former president or leader of his party; his insertion into the race raises legitimate questions about whether he would play an outsized or distracting role in a new Clinton White House.

Mr. Obama has proved just as resilient as Ms. Clinton, but the candidate who presents himself as path-breaker and truth-teller has broken little new ground and spoken few hard truths, and his inexperience in foreign affairs has shone through from time to time. He, too, has descended at times to cheap attacks, such as in his initial support for suggestions that Ms. Clinton had maligned the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr.

In a sense Mr. Obama's candidacy is a mirror image of Ms. Clinton's. Voters' greatest concerns with her have to do with history and personality, not depth of expertise: Have past battles rendered her too guarded or resentful, too inclined to see enemies in her opponents, to allow her to unite the country? Is there something sour in the prospect of a quarter-century of rule by only Bushes and Clintons? Mr. Obama's greatest strengths, on the other hand, arise from biography and personality. He is inclusive, forgiving and inspiring -- but can the nation afford a president who was toiling in a state legislature a scant four years ago? While he is often compared to the youthful John F. Kennedy, it's worth remembering that JFK had spent 14 years in Congress by the time he was elected president, compared with just three so far for Mr. Obama.

On the Republican side, no candidate is better equipped to meet the first tier of challenges than Sen. John McCain, an advocate of strength without jingoism. Few modern political figures offer Mr. McCain's combination of proven courage, fidelity to principle and knowledge of the world. From early in the Iraq war, he was a critic of the Bush administration's errors in strategy, but he has consistently argued that it would be dangerous for the United States, and a betrayal of Iraqis, to withdraw U.S. forces prematurely. Those views have not endeared him either to the pro-war Republican base or the larger anti-war majority, but Mr. McCain does not appear to have formulated his views with an eye on poll ratings.

That was similarly true with regard to immigration, an issue on which Mr. McCain has been a leader. He has bucked his party's president, and stood up for the country, in his opposition to the use of torture techniques by U.S. personnel on foreign detainees. He long has championed democracy and democrats in faraway countries, devoting energy and time to causes that do him no political good but reflect a moral and sophisticated understanding of world politics. He has opposed wasteful spending in the Pentagon and worked to reduce the corrupt influence of money in American politics. In contrast to most in his party, he recognized the danger of climate change and promoted, in bipartisan legislation, mandatory but market-based solutions to global warming.

None of this proves that he would be a successful president. We disagree plenty with Mr. McCain. We doubt that he would do enough to redress the imbalance of the tax code that President Bush has tipped toward the wealthy. On a range of domestic issues (abortion, gay rights), Mr. McCain is wrong or disinterested, or both. His cozying up to parts of the religious right in this campaign hasn't been pretty. The implosion of his campaign staff last year highlighted long-standing questions about his management skills. And though he is sharp and, if anything, hyperactive today, it's fair to raise the question of age for someone who would be 80 by the end of a second term.

What of the rest of the field? Former governor Mitt Romney is smart and able, and his positions on trade and education, among others, are sensible; but his willingness to change positions in politically convenient directions on just about any issue has to raise questions about what backbone he would show as president. Rudolph W. Giuliani accomplished a great deal as mayor of New York, but his thin-skinned and crony-prone leadership style is alarming. By refusing to test himself in early primaries, he missed a chance to prove his fitness under stress.

Both Mr. Romney and Mr. Giuliani correctly support a strong military and active foreign policy, but neither seems to have any understanding of the harm done to the United States by Bush administration policies on torture and detention; their tin ears on that subject may reflect the thinness of their foreign experience. Former governor Mike Huckabee's sympathy for working Americans is a welcome aberration in the Republican field, undermined by the pillar of his economic platform, a tax reform that would help the rich and harm the middle class. His understanding of the world is thin, and he gravely misconceives the proper place of religion in public life. All three have stained themselves with their expedient transformations from immigration pragmatists to vengeful hard-liners.

It's worth recalling that when this presidential campaign took shape, an eon or two ago, there was considerable optimism about the strength of both fields. The first year of campaigning has been clarifying, and not all the candidates have survived with stature intact. But this isn't a year of seven dwarfs; there are capable people on both sides.

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