In the days after Barack Obama's remarks about the bitter religion clingers of Middle America were made known, a near mob of conservative intellectuals sought to place his "élitism" in proper historical context. George Will located Obama securely in Adlai Stevenson's wine cellar, representing the effete strand of liberalism that corrupted F.D.R.'s party of the working people. William Kristol went straight for the main chance, positing Obama as a direct descendant of yes Karl Marx, who famously proclaimed religion to be the "opiate" of the masses. As the Marx meme fluttered across Fox News, you could almost hear the vast sigh of relief: Obama's gaffe had put Republican propagandists back in their comfort zone. Rather than fight a defensive election over the Bush debacles the misplayed wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, the mortgage-market collapse and recession, the looming environmental crises they could go on the offensive with their favorite wedge issues: God and guns. Steve Schmidt, a spokesman for John McCain, said Obama would be attacked for his gaffe for "the duration of his candidacy."
McCain himself didn't seem so sure about that. He did say that he believed Obama had "disparaged" small-town America, that he didn't think a love of God or weaponry had anything to do with economic despair. But when asked directly by Chris Matthews if élitism would be an issue in the general election, McCain said no. This may well be strategy: the candidate takes the high road while Schmidt lands the body blows. But McCain has laid down some pretty clear markers that he sees this election in much the same way that Obama (and Hillary Clinton) does. He wants to have a substantive debate about the war, he believes that climate change is a major issue, and he has begun to acknowledge the economic pain visited upon manufacturing workers in places like Michigan and Ohio. If he persists in seeing the election this way and running on his convictions, he will be doing the Democrats and the nation a great favor.
I suspect that he will. It's McCain's way. He sees the tawdry ceremonies of politics the spin and hucksterism as unworthy. He's not one to put on silly hats; his physical disabilities limit his capacity to engage in bowling photo ops. His shtick is substance, the endless access granted to reporters on his bus. The problem for McCain, and the opportunity for Democrats, is that his positions are either unpopular or sketchy. The problem for Democrats is that McCain has the potential to steal, or take the edge off, some of their favorite issues by offering more moderate-seeming, if sometimes totally inadequate, answers.
On global warming, for instance, he and Senator Joe Lieberman introduced a cap-and-trade system to limit carbon emissions 60% below 1990 levels by 2050. McCain's recent body language indicates he would not be nearly as comprehensive as the Democrats; he probably would not, for example, auction off the right to pollute for major corporate spewers which could raise significant funds for alternative-energy research. But the old McCain-Lieberman plan had the look of a half-a-loaf compromise that could eventually get through Congress and take the global-warming issue off the table in the election for voters who are unlikely to probe the intricacies of carbon auctions. (McCain may modify his carbon-emissions proposal when he delivers an environmental speech this spring.)
The real heat of the campaign will be on the issues war and taxes where there is a real difference between McCain and the Democrats. He will have an advantage in the war debate: both Democrats favor a rapid-withdrawal timetable for Iraq one to two brigades per month that is probably untenable. But McCain has a more significant disadvantage: most Americans are sick of the war and do not want to hear his wildly unrealistic bottom line that the U.S. needs a long-term military presence in that perpetually brutal noncountry. On taxes, McCain is likely to find himself debating ... himself. He was against the Bush tax cuts before he was for them. He has now proposed a new and costly round of corporate tax breaks and a summer gasoline-tax holiday that is just the sort of flummery he has traditionally opposed. McCain's insistence on cutting pork-barrel projects from the federal budget is worthy but not very significant the narcissism of small deductions. He would be better served by announcing his intention to kill some of the more foolish Pentagon weapons systems, as he has in the past.
If McCain is as good as his word, we could have a great debate this fall. If he isn't as good as his word and the temptations will be mighty to play the élitism card McCain will have to live with the knowledge that in the most important business of his life, he chose expediency over honor. That's probably not the way he wants to be remembered.