"Tonight is a victory of optimism over Washington-style pessimism," Mitt Romney said after winning the primary in Michigan, the state where he was born and where his father governed. This was, as is Romney's wont, distillate of hokum. The former Massachusetts governor remains the most pessimistic of candidates, always assuming the worst about the public—and never taking a difficult position or telling a hard truth. In Michigan, he suddenly opposed higher fuel-efficiency standards for cars, included in the recent energy bill signed by the President. He also chided John McCain for telling the hard truth that some of the blue-collar auto industry jobs "won't be coming back."
As for McCain, he is quite the opposite of a Washington-style pessimist. He is, if anything, too optimistic about the public's ability to accept bad news. There is a political law that governs this sort of thing: If you're going to tell people something they don't want to hear, you've got to make a convincing counteroffer.
Bill Clinton was a master at this, especially in 1992, when he would go to Michigan union halls selling free trade to the protectionist United Auto Workers. In fact, Clinton was the first presidential candidate to say, "Some of these jobs won't be coming back." But Clinton's counteroffer was a winner for two reasons. First, he included a breathless wonkfest of concrete programs to goose the economy and provide for displaced workers. More important, he convinced his audiences that he was obsessed with fixing the economy, that it was his No. 1 priority.
McCain has none of that going for him. The economy is not his thing. Traveling across Michigan in the days before the primary, McCain realized he had to talk about the looming recession—but he used it, more often than not, as a transition to the things he really cared about—cutting government spending and global warming. If the government weren't spending "$233 million on a bridge to nowhere in Alaska," he would say, the money could be used for retraining programs for displaced workers. If the government decided to limit carbon emissions and reduce our dependence on foreign oil, new technologies would create a wave of jobs for the auto industry.
While it's good to hear a Republican acknowledging these basic truths, McCain faces an essential conundrum: he is calling for government activism in a party that believes, as Ronald Reagan said, that "government is part of the problem." McCain, who vehemently opposes new taxes, is proposing a cap-and-trade program to reduce carbon emissions that will increase energy prices significantly.
But John McCain has never been about details. He has always been about a gladiatorial spectacle—the honest man in the arena, taking questions from all comers with good humor, demonstrating his courage by the way he campaigns. There is something quite exhilarating about watching him strut his stuff. His utter independence is bracing, and his willingness to say "I don't know" is honest, often to a fault. You could almost sense his audiences arguing with themselves at his town meetings: "What a great American! ... But does he really think Washington politicians are going to stop pork-barrel spending? And why is he so soft on those illegal immigrants?"
The issue that McCain cares most about is Iraq. His I-told-you-so support for the troop surge, his admiration for David Petraeus—McCain never fails to mention that Petraeus should have been Time's Person of the Year—is the climax of every speech. This too is admirable, but also a bit half-baked. McCain's vision of the war is simple, binary: We are fighting al-Qaeda and, to a lesser extent, the Iranians. We are "succeeding," he says. "Al-Qaeda is on the run, but it is not defeated." But Iraq's future is complicated and has little to do with the Islamic terrorists, who are rapidly losing their stranglehold on the Sunni population. It has everything to do with whether the Shi'ites will accept the 80,000 newly armed Sunnis as part of a unified security structure and also be able to resolve their own differences in places like Basra, where a three-way gang war is taking place; and whether the Kurds can accept the fact that Kirkuk can't be controlled by Kurdistan if Iraq is to survive.
Most of all, Iraq's future will be determined by an American decision. With the terrorist threat diminished, is it worth spending $9 billion a month to referee the eternal Mesopotamian ethnic differences while the U.S. lapses into a second-world debtor economy, unable to invest in health care, education and high-tech infrastructure? Or is it time to scale back, in a prudent fashion, the U.S. commitment there? No doubt, this will annoy McCain enormously, but—like almost everything else in this campaign—the war in Iraq is about to become an economic issue.