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McCain's Core Advantage

By Richard Cohen
Tuesday, June 24, 2008

In politics, we're having a Jean-Baptiste Alphonse Karr kind of year. It was Karr, a French writer, who coined the phrase plus ça change, plus c'est la même chose, which means, as Barack Obama has shown, that the more things change, the more they stay the same. N'est-ce pas?

Oui . And the same principle holds for John McCain. Like Obama, he was going to give us change, and in a sense, he has. He has abandoned his maverick persona of old and moved to assure the GOP that on most matters, he is devoutly orthodox. This is change, all right, but for most voters, who hanker for something other than what they've had for most of the last eight years, this is not much change at all.

We shall return to McCain in a moment. First, Obama. The Democratic nominee reversed himself on the public funding of presidential campaigns and decided that he would, after all, raise the money himself. The reason for this reversal is that Obama is going to raise much more money on his own than the $84 million the government is prepared to give him. This is the kind of math even I can understand, and I forgive Obama for valuing victory over consistency.

But what is far less forgivable is the socialist realism language he used to rationalize his decision. He couched his selfishness as the essence of civic duty. He explained that he had to adapt to an exigency that was there all along but that he had somehow not foreseen when he pledged to accept public financing: to respond to those slimy campaign committees of the type that Swift-boated poor John Kerry.

"This is our moment, and our country is depending on us," he said. "So join me, and declare your independence from this broken system, and let's build the first general election campaign that's truly funded by the American people" -- those people being, as it happened, his very own contributors.

In some recent magazine articles, I and certain of my colleagues have been accused of being soft on McCain, forgiving him his flips, his flops and his mostly conservative ideology. I do not plead guilty to this charge, because, over the years, the man's imperfections have not escaped my keen eye. But, for the record, let's recapitulate: McCain has either reversed himself or significantly amended his positions on immigration, tax cuts for the wealthy, campaign spending (as it applies to use of his wife's corporate airplane) and, most recently, offshore drilling. In the more distant past, he has denounced then embraced certain ministers of medieval views and changed his mind about the Confederate flag, which flies by state sanction in South Carolina only, I suspect, to provide Republican candidates with a chance to choose tradition over common decency. There, I've said it all.

But here is the difference between McCain and Obama -- and Obama had better pay attention. McCain is a known commodity. It's not just that he's been around a long time and staked out positions antithetical to those of his Republican base. It's also -- and more important -- that we know his bottom line. As his North Vietnamese captors found out, there is only so far he will go, and then his pride or his sense of honor takes over. This -- not just his candor and nonstop verbosity on the Straight Talk Express -- is what commends him to so many journalists.

Obama might have a similar bottom line, core principles for which, in some sense, he is willing to die. If so, we don't know what they are. Nothing so far in his life approaches McCain's decision to refuse repatriation as a POW so as to deny his jailors a propaganda coup. In fact, there is scant evidence the Illinois senator takes positions that challenge his base or otherwise threaten him politically. That's why his reversal on campaign financing and his transparently false justification of it matter more than similar acts by McCain.

A presidential race is only incidentally about issues. It's really about likability and character. Obama is, to paraphrase what he said about Hillary Clinton, more than "likable enough" -- in fact, so much so that he is the most charismatic presidential candidate I've seen since Robert F. Kennedy. But the character question hangs -- not because of any evidence to the contrary and not in any moral sense, either, but because he is still young and lacks the job references McCain picked up in a North Vietnamese prison. McCain has a bottom line. Obama just moved his.

cohenr@washpost.com

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