Despite its diversions and distractions, the presidential campaign has provided some important insights into the character and leadership potential of the two main contenders—just as it's supposed to do.
What have we learned about them?
Republican nominee John McCain has shown himself to be impulsive, aggressive, and combative. He always seems to be looking for the bold surprise that will enable him to conquer the enemy and ensure "victory," as he wants to do in Iraq and Afghanistan. This is what he was trained to do as a Vietnam-era naval aviator, and it reflects his gambler's instincts as someone who enjoys a high-rolling game of craps now and then. Summing up his leadership philosophy, McCain recently told ABC's This Week: "I'm a Teddy Roosevelt Republican. I've got to get in the arena when America needs it.... Whether I helped or hurt, I'll be glad to accept the judgment of history."
McCain's campaign has been marked by examples of what a loyalist calls "leading from the gut," as President Bush has done for eight years. His campaign "suspension" a few weeks ago—announced as the way to help break a stalemate over the multibillion-dollar financial "rescue package" in Congress—got him dramatic headlines although it had little impact on the talks.
Palin factor. McCain's pick of Alaska Gov. Sarah Palin as his vice presidential running mate was another example of his preference for the dramatic. As his position slipped in the polls, McCain sought a game-changer. He selected Palin as the first woman on a Republican ticket, ignoring Palin's minimal understanding of national and international issues, which is now eroding her initial popularity with key swing voters. More broadly, McCain sought an advantage by reversing his long-standing support for deregulation as he voted for the huge financial bailout, and he changed his mind and supported offshore drilling to reduce U.S. dependence on foreign oil.
These are either examples of common-sense flexibility or crass opportunism, but in each case they show McCain's willingness to do something unexpected to shake things up. "Senator McCain is zigging and zagging and attacking and trying to figure out what his next tactical step is," says a prominent Republican who has advised two past GOP presidents. "But it's very difficult for McCain to separate himself as a Republican from the last eight years of Republican rule."
He tried, though, during his third and final debate with Barack Obama on October 15 when he responded to his adversary's efforts to tie him to the unpopular incumbent. "Senator Obama," McCain said derisively, "I am not President Bush. If you wanted to run against President Bush, you should have run four years ago." But, true to form, McCain came across as a bit too abrasive, and instant polls found that most debate watchers thought Obama won the night.
Obama, on the other hand, has remained steady and unflappable, both during McCain's repeated debate attacks and, earlier, during the Democratic primaries when he was losing to Hillary Clinton. Obama has shown he is a quick study and is a better campaigner now than he used to be, more nimble, more reassuring, more focused on the middle class, which is where the election will be decided. Many find him likable and engaging, ever ready with an incandescent smile and inspirational rhetoric.
But there have been some downsides. Obama has let McCain off the hook by not going for the jugular, especially when he could have tied McCain ever more closely to Bush. And this has raised questions about his overall toughness. Even some Democrats wonder if he has the strength to stand up to his opponents, including the left wing of his own party, if he becomes president. Obama doesn't want to come across as an "angry black man," like past African-American candidates such as Jesse Jackson and Al Sharpton—something that many white voters intensely dislike. Whether this means he would go wobbly when under pressure is open to question.
Most important, Obama has emerged as a careful planner not given to rash judgments. "He's clearly someone who likes to test the ice to see how thick it is before he stands on it," says political scientist William Galston of the Brookings Institution, a former adviser to President Bill Clinton. "That means he pays attention to what other people think. Whether he pays the right amount of attention or too much attention remains to be seen."
In sum, McCain comes across as the tougher, more decisive, and more aggressive leader. To some, he is manic, erratic, reckless. Obama seems more thoughtful, deliberate, and careful. To some, he is slow off the mark, timid, even naive. And if these differences don't make for an easy choice on Election Day, they do make for a clear one.