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Obama and McCain: As Much Alike as Different?

(Crossposted at Campaign U.)

It was just a hunch but it panned out. Earlier this year, when both major parties’ nominations were still in doubt, I asked the roughly 40 students in the class I was teaching on the American Presidency at Vanderbilt University how many of them were for Obama. A strong majority raised their hands. “Those of you with your hand up,” I asked: “Who’s your second choice?” By a smaller but still clear majority, the Obama supporters said, “McCain.”

Every election establishes a polarity that’s wider than the reality. That’s because once the two major party nominees are chosen, they instantly constitute the entire range of candidates from which the next president will be chosen. Everyone — the candidates themselves, their campaign advisers, their grassroots activists, party leaders, the news media, and, consequently, the voters — begins focusing like the proverbial laser beam on what makes them different from each other.

But isn’t that a trick of perspective? I have two friends who spend endless and pointless hours debating the relative merits of the Toyota Camry and the Honda Accord. Now you know and I know — hell, everybody except these two knuckleheads knows — that the experience of owning a Camry or an Accord is essentially the same experience.

Like my students of several months ago, when I look at Obama and McCain, I find myself looking as much at their similarities as their differences — similarities that, in many ways, make them as much like each other as like the other leaders of their respective parties.

Most of these similarities have to do with their qualities as individuals rather than their stands on the issues: biographies that include formative chapters outside the country and unrelated to politics, a desire to find common ground across ideological lines, freedom from slavish partisan orthodoxy, a disposition to reform, a willingness to think outside the box, an impulse to confound stereotypes. And, yes, both of them put a Sinatra song on their list of 10 favorite tunes, which in my view is reason enough to feel confident about the next four years. (That said, it’s Advantage: McCain on this one: Obama chose the pretty good “Easy to Love” but McCain chose the stunning “I’ve Got You under My Skin.”)

That’s not to say that the candidates’ differing positions on many issues are inconsequential. But the presidency is a unique office, its powers fully inhabited by the individual who occupies it at the time. Much rides on the kind of temperament that individual has.

If focusing on the similarities between Obama and McCain instead of the differences sounds strange, think of elections past in which the candidates seemed at the time to be dramatically different from each other but now seem more alike. Woodrow Wilson and Theodore Roosevelt, the two most important national leaders of the Progressive movement, in 1912. Harry Truman and Thomas Dewey, both of them pro-civil rights cold warriors, in 1948. Dwight Eisenhower and Adlai Stevenson, two moderates uninterested in civil rights, in 1952. To be sure, there were good reasons in each case to vote for one over the other, just as there are good reasons to vote for Obama or McCain. But the choice in those previous elections, and perhaps in this one, was more like one between vanilla ice cream and strawberry ice cream than between, say, ice cream and a pickle.

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