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The Battle Begins By: Stephen F. Hayes
The Weekly Standard | Wednesday, February 13, 2008

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 matters.

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 very lives.

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 House."

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 now!"

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 been fought."

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.

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