The Coming Change
THE DEMOCRATIC presidential race remains a tossup, but the contours of the general election debate, and to some extent the next administration, have become remarkably clear in the past few days. Whether John McCain, Hillary Rodham Clinton or Barack Obama, the next president will be a senator, the first in 48 years to enter the White House from Congress. As much as executive experience may be a plus for the presidency, there is something to be said about coming to the White House with a nuanced understanding of what it takes to get things done in Washington. Perhaps it's not too much to hope that a president who's been stuck in gridlock will begin a new administration with a good understanding of how to fix it.
In contrast to the current White House occupant, the next president will prohibit the use of waterboarding and other forms of torture that have stained America's reputation abroad. In contrast to President Bush, the next president will not start as a skeptic about the danger posed by global warming, and he or she will favor, not resist, legislation to impose mandatory caps on greenhouse gases, even without an international agreement binding other nations. The next president will support federal funding for embryonic stem cell research and vigorous regulation of the campaign finance system. The next president, however chastened by the angry debate over illegal immigration, will believe in the need for comprehensive immigration reform and support the idea of giving those in this country illegally a path to earn legal status. This is one Bush administration position we are relieved will stay constant.
But the November matchup will also present sharp contrasts between the two party's nominees. As Mr. McCain told the Conservative Political Action Conference on Thursday, some elections are "fought within margins of small differences. This one will not be. We are arguing about hugely consequential things." The most obvious involves the war in Iraq; the two Democrats have pledged to "end" the war, by which they mean to withdraw combat forces as quickly as possible without being terribly clear about how they would handle the ensuing instability. Mr. McCain warns that the Democrats' approach "recklessly ignores the profound human calamity and dire threats to our security that would ensue" and speaks of the possible need to be in Iraq for years to come. More fundamentally, Mr. McCain says that he wants to be president to combat "the terrible evil of radical Islamic extremism," while the Democrats tend to downplay the threat of Islamic extremism.
In the domestic sphere, the two parties' nominees also have conflicting visions of the proper role and size of government. They differ over the wisdom of extending all the Bush tax cuts: Mr. McCain vows to do so, while the Democrats would roll back the tax cuts for the top earners. They disagree over the best approach to restraining health-care costs and making insurance affordable, with Mr. McCain placing far more emphasis on market forces and eschewing any mandates, either on individuals to purchase coverage or on insurers to offer coverage to all. They have opposing views about abortion and gay rights. And in the difference with the most long-lasting consequences, they would appoint markedly different types of justices to the Supreme Court, where the next president could have several vacancies to fill. Mr. McCain vows to pick justices "of the character and quality" of Mr. Bush's two picks, Chief Justice John G. Roberts Jr. and Samuel A. Alito Jr.; both Democratic senators voted against those nominees.
The casting hasn't been completed, but the stage is set for a compelling general election.