JOHN MCCAIN AND Barack Obama swept the Chesapeake Primaries, as expected.
With his victories last night, McCain further solidified his status as the
almost-certain nominee of his party. Obama, meanwhile, has taken a lead among
delegates to the Democratic convention and is now arguably the frontrunner.
With the outcomes last night widely expected, aides to both Obama and McCain
had plenty of time to craft victory speeches that would reflect their
candidate's thinking on the state of the race. And with varying degrees of
intensity, both men used that freedom to begin to frame a McCain-versus-Obama
general election contest, something that is starting to look more likely than
not. If that happens, viewers watching the speeches tonight saw a preview of
the coming debate.
McCain, for his part, borrowed extensively from Hillary Clinton's dualist
critique of Barack Obama: Hope is no substitute for action, and experience
Here is the relevant excerpt:
Hope, my friends, is a powerful thing. I can attest to that
better than many, for I have seen men's hopes tested in hard and cruel ways
that few will ever experience. And I stood astonished at the resilience of
their hope in the darkest of hours because it did not reside in an exaggerated
belief in their individual strength, but in the support of their comrades, and
their faith in their country. My hope for our country resides in my faith in
the American character, the character which proudly defends the right to think
and do for ourselves, but perceives self-interest in accord with a
kinship of ideals, which, when called upon, Americans will defend with their
To encourage a country with only rhetoric rather than sound and proven ideas
that trust in the strength and courage of free people is not a promise of hope.
It is a platitude.
When I was a young man, I thought glory was the highest ambition, and that all
glory was self-glory. My parents tried to teach me otherwise, as did the Naval Academy.
But I didn't understand the lesson until later in life, when I confronted
challenges I never expected to face.
In that confrontation I discovered that I was dependent on others to a greater
extent than I had ever realized, but that neither they nor the cause we served
made any claims on my identity. On the contrary, I discovered that nothing is
more liberating in life than to fight for a cause that encompasses you, but is
not defined by your existence alone. And that has made all the difference, my
friends, all the difference in the world.
When Obamaa challenges McCain, he begins with a show of
respect. "John McCain, the likely Republican nominee, is a hero. And we
honor his service to our nation."
It is a signature Obama rhetorical technique. He offers praise for an
individual, idea, or policy before calmly explaining why he holds something
close to the opposite view. The effect is that listeners come away thinking
that even where they disagree with Obama he is respectful of other views.
(Obama supporters say that he is able to convey this respect because he is
genuinely interested in ideas--including conservative, ideas.) In Iowa, back in December,
I saw him do this several times on issues ranging from gun control to
immigration. (See here for a long look at how he does it.)
In his speech last night in Madison, Wisconsin,
Obama moved from his show of respect toward McCain to drawing sharp contrasts
with him. "We honor his service but his priorities don't address the real
problems of the American people because they are bound to the failed policies
of the past."
Obama noted that although George Bush and Dick Cheney won't be on the ballot
this November--loud applause--"the Bush-Cheney war and the Bush-Cheney tax
cuts for the wealthy, those will be on the ballot. If I am the nominee, John
McCain won't be able to say that I ever supported this war in Iraq, because I
opposed it from the start. Senator McCain said the other day that we might be
mired for a hundred years in Iraq.
A hundred years, which is reason enough not to give him four years in the White
Then, Obama turned populist. "Instead of spending hundreds of billions
of dollars in Baghdad,
we could have put that money into our schools and our hospitals, rebuilding our
roads and bridges. And that's what the American people need us to do right
Obama criticized McCain's calls to make the Bush tax cuts permanent by using
the Arizona senator's own words and, as he is
ever wont to do, returned to the decision to go to war in Iraq.
"Somewhere along the road to the Republican nomination the Straight Talk
Express lost its wheels because now he's all for those same tax cuts. Well, I
am not. We can't keep spending what we don't have in a war that shouldn't have
This helps McCain, of course. McCain's outreach to conservative skeptics may
or may not prove successful. But nothing will galvanize conservatives more than
hearing these kinds of attacks from Democrats on the things conservatives find
most important. Call it an Obama assist.
The conventional wisdom holds that a McCain vs. Obama general election would
be one of the most civil in recent memories, with two likeable candidates
talking about politics on a higher level. One guy would give hundreds of
speeches about hope and change; the other guy would talk about sacrifice,
character, and integrity. All of that is true.
But that should not obscure the fact that there are, as McCain said in his
CPAC speech last Thursday, big differences between the parties on the big
issues, or that these two men have had some frosty personal interactions in
their short time working together in the Senate. So it may be civil and tough
at the same time.
One can hope.