A Tapestry In Two Tickets

By David Ignatius
Sunday, September 7, 2008

It has been a guilty pleasure at times, like watching a particularly raucous episode of "The Jerry Springer Show," but there's something lovable about the way this year's never-ending political campaign has turned out.

We now have two presidential tickets that display the American rainbow in all its eccentric colors. It's as raw and real, and as unlikely, as the nation itself: On one side a suave, aloof African American, twinned with a loquacious Catholic whose manner evokes his blue-collar roots; on the other, a certified war hero paired with a young woman from Alaska who looks like the heroine of a country music song and earns her reputation both as a beauty-contest charmer and a political "barracuda."

Best of all, these four people are each, in different ways, American rebels. They have all made their way challenging conventional wisdom, telling off the know-it-alls, making a place for themselves and their ideas. They all retained their individuality in a political culture that tends to grind down candidates until they are palpable phonies. That didn't happen with these four -- whatever you think of them, they are who they claim to be.

Stand back a minute and consider what this often shrill and partisan campaign process has produced: The two parties converged toward the center, selecting in Barack Obama and John McCain presidential candidates who promised they would work across party lines to break the gridlock in Washington. The dividers lost. The victors were a change agent and a maverick. And each of them picked someone who shared his instinct to challenge the status quo.

It's a refreshingly upside-down composite picture: The African American candidate is the most conventional of the lot, with his Columbia-Harvard pedigree and his elegant Princeton-Harvard wife and their picture-perfect children. It's the gal from Alaska, Sarah Palin, who reminds us of how messy the real world is, with her special-needs child passed from hand to hand, her pregnant teenage daughter and the hockey-star boyfriend/father who looks, weirdly, like he just won the lottery.

And old John McCain, eyes flashing, tighter than a tick, just like old Gramps when he's about to take a verbal shot at someone he thinks is a jerk. And motor-mouth Joe Biden, who can't stop saying what he thinks, even if it's to applaud how well his rival, Palin, did in cutting up Obama during her acceptance speech.

I'm sorry, but this is an American family portrait I like. I know all the reasons to be worried. Palin is breathtakingly unqualified to be president, and the idea that we would have someone in the White House who wants to overturn science and teach creationism in our public schools is, well, terrifying. McCain is too old and too prone to zingers to be an ideal commander in chief, his bravery and sense of honor notwithstanding. We need a president who knows how to settle conflicts honorably, as opposed to starting new ones.

As for the Democrats, they're vulnerable, too. The rap that Obama is a charismatic celebrity has traction because in some ways it's true: He takes sang-froid a step too far; he is so cool he's unnerving; and it's still too hard to be sure how he would govern as president. The most normal of the lot is Biden -- how odd is that, that the lifelong senator would be the average Joe?

It's going to be a fun last lap in this campaign -- and a quick one, mercifully. One hopes the presidential candidates, McCain and Obama, will be true to their rhetoric of bipartisanship and keep the lipstick on the pit bull, as it were. Too much sweetness would be un-American. But amid the one-liners, these four must discuss the issues: America is in trouble, and we still don't know how Obama or McCain would govern.

Some fundamentals this year ought to favor the Democrats: The Republican president is deeply unpopular; his party is exhausted; and the economy is probably headed for a recession. Yet the national security agenda tends to favor Republicans: We are fighting two tough wars, in Iraq and Afghanistan, and nearing a third in Pakistan, and we face a cunning adversary in Iran. Over the next two months, we need to understand better what Obama and McCain would do about these conflicts, and more, how they would put the world back together.

But for now, let's enjoy the American tapestry that's laid out before us: quirky, sometimes discordant, with some missed stitches and ragged patches, but quite a piece of work all the same.

The writer is co-host ofPostGlobal, an online discussion of international issues. His e-mail address isdavidignatius@washpost.com.

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