Feint praise

A reply to Jonathan Z., on McCain’s dunce cap.

John McCain is not a buffoon. The GOP doesn’t lack for nitwit senators (or even higher officials), but McCain is not among them.

I’ve never voted for a Republican, and I’m not about to start now. I fervently hope that the Democratic nominee sweeps into office with long coattails. But mocking John McCain is not going to advance that effort. Jonathan Z. is right, so far as it goes. Obama’s website is much better, on all dimensions, than McCain’s. This reflects the greater substance of Obama’s platform, as well as a better-run campaign operation, and a different generational sensibility (oh, if only Ted Stevens were running).

Obama has a crackerjack team of advisors; in policy areas that I know something about, a Democrat could hardly do better.

McCain is at an initial disadvantage in this comparison, as sensible GOP experts in many domestic-policy areas are thin on the ground. And (pace Glenn Loury’s challenge to Mark on Obama v Clinton v Jefferson) Obama appears, by all measures, to be whip smart and a quick study. Nonetheless, I see no indication that Obama himself has a deeper understanding or better grasp of the issues in, say, energy and environment, than McCain does. I suspect that he has better instincts, which counts for a lot. His position papers are quite good—as I’d expect from his policy teams—which reinforces my confidence that he’ll be good on energy and environment policy (coal-state pandering notwithstanding).

But no candidate knows everything well—especially in technical fields. McCain readily admits that he knows nothing about economics (not, admittedly, an arcane field of policy analysis); what would Obama admit to knowing nothing about? Defense procurement?

McCain’s “reputed” foreign-policy expertise has come in for mockery, from the left and from the hard right. In aggregate, I prefer Obama’s foreign-policy platform (compare their Foreign Affairs thumbsuckers). But McCain has been engaged, in the lead, and on top of the issues for years, mostly as a centrist, internationalist, CFRish, bipartisan consensualist. (What’s that? “Iraq,” you say? The line’s breaking up, sorry, gotta go.) And, in many respects, Obama has followed—if not McCain qua McCain’s lead, at least consistent with his sensibility. For example, McCain and Lugar (and Biden) have been the Senate’s most ardent advocates for NATO enlargement, extending to aspirants Ukraine and Georgia. Obama visited Ukraine with Lugar in 2005, and endorses the offer to Ukraine (as has HRC, and as would any Chicago politician, no doubt).

The extension of NATO membership to new democracies in Europe has helped create a zone of peace and prosperity across Europe and enhanced NATO’s military capability by facilitating contributions from new members. I therefore applaud the Ukrainian leaders’ commitment to deepening the democratic reforms required of all NATO members and to undertaking new responsibilities in their relationship with the Alliance. The Ukrainian leadership’s determination to foster national unity and consult the Ukrainian people on the question of Ukraine’s future in NATO demonstrates the importance they place on national unity and open, democratic debate.

NATO’s upcoming summit in Bucharest in April 2008 is a critical opportunity to continue to build the Europe “whole and free” that has been the goal of all recent U.S. presidents. I call on President Bush and all of NATO’s leaders to seize that opportunity.

SecDef Gates, in Munich, chided the allies for not holding up their end in Afghanistan. Here’s Obama, last summer:

Our alliances require constant cooperation and revision if they are to remain effective and relevant. NATO has made tremendous strides over the last 15 years, transforming itself from a Cold War security structure into a partnership for peace. But today, NATO’s challenge in Afghanistan has exposed, as Senator Lugar has put it, “the growing discrepancy between NATO’s expanding missions and its lagging capabilities.” To close this gap, I will rally our NATO allies to contribute more troops to collective security operations and to invest more in reconstruction and stabilization capabilities.

McCain’s campaign is about more than having been a POW (a not-incidental fact of his biography that he hasn’t exploited as much as he might). If not entirely a straight talker, he’s an undisciplined talker, and is bound to say some stupid, provocative, groundless, or fantastical things. Democrats should seize on those, and on his manifest policy weaknesses. But an ad hominem campaign will turn off many of those vaunted undecideds to whom Obama is expected to appeal. (Were the GOP candidate any of the other wannabes, I’d be all ad hominem, all the time.)