Reading the mainstream press clippings of this year’s presidential race can bring to mind an old Mary MacGregor song: “Torn between two lovers, feelin’ like a fool/Lovin’ both of you is breakin’ all the rules.”
For the better part of the last decade, allegedly cynical reporters have been going gaga for John McCain, who in 2000 half-jokingly described the press corps as his base. No politician in the post-Watergate era—and certainly no Republican—has been able to reduce seen-it-all-before members of the Fourth Estate to lovesick schoolgirls with such alacrity. Then came Barack Obama, who managed to create a Beatlemania-like craze in the media without even whispering such sweet nothings as “you little jerk,” a favorite McCain term of endearment.
Having two major-party presidential contenders who are adored by the media has tamed reporters’ usually savage instincts when it comes to campaign coverage. Most serious criticism of both candidates has been relegated to the fever swamps. McCain’s star has dimmed a little because Obama is a fresher story and more in line with Washington journalists’ liberal political leanings. The Democratic nominee continues to coast from the Illinois state senate all the way to the doorstep of the White House with little serious scrutiny.
David Freddoso has attempted to rectify this oversight with The Case Against Barack Obama, a careful and almost comprehensive dissection of Obama’s record and policy positions. Freddoso, a reporter who has worked for National Review Online and the Evans-Novak Political Report, avoids the pitfalls of other anti-Obama books. “Too many of those criticizing Obama,” he writes, “have been content merely to slander him—to claim falsely that he refuses to salute the U.S. flag or was sworn into office on a Koran…” Freddoso criticizes the “intellectual laziness” of conservatives who hope that some blogger will discover a birth certificate revealing that Obama was born in Kenya and—poof!—the Democratic nominee will disappear. It is far more difficult to do the work of dismantling Obama’s banal liberal platform and contrived media image.
It does not diminish Freddoso’s accomplishment to say that The Case Against Barack Obama is a perfect companion to Reason editor Matt Welch’s anti-McCain book, McCain: The Myth of a Maverick. While Freddoso’s book contains more original research, both volumes make good use of material that has been previously reported but frequently ignored and never compiled. Together, they take Obama and McCain down from their media-built pedestals and prove that for all their rhetoric of “change” and “reform,” and “outsider” status, both candidates are in fact unusually skilled practitioners of politics as usual. Both books also make clear that the two overexposed candidates have underexposed records—Welch dubs McCain “the unexamined candidate” and Freddoso’s subtitle stresses Obama’s “unexamined agenda.”
According to the conventional wisdom, McCain is a selfless crusader against special interests—defined as any cause that does not interest McCain—while Obama is a healer who will unite blacks and whites, rich and poor, red states and blue states. The truth, our authors argue, is more complicated. In Freddoso’s telling, Obama is a doctrinaire liberal and deeply partisan Democrat who was able to get along smoothly in Chicago machine politics and with the racialist paranoia of Jeremiah Wright’s Trinity United Church—marking himself, Chicago Tribune columnist John Kass says, as the kind of politician who “won’t make no waves and won’t back no losers.”
Welch similarly departs from the usual McCain narrative. The Arizona senator and Republican presidential nominee is “not a ‘Man of the People’,” Welch writes. “He’s third-generation Navy royalty, prepped in an elite boarding school, married (as his namesake father was before him) to an ambitious, moneyed millionairess of refined taste and regal bearing.” Nothing wrong with any of that, except for the inconvenient truth that McCain’s career hardly represents the banishment of money from politics. Welch describes McCain’s support for campaign finance reform as the “equivalent of an alcoholic using the federal government to lock up his own liquor cabinet.”
Neither Obama nor McCain are consistently high-minded in their political practices. Freddoso recounts how Obama won his Illinois state senate seat in 1996 by getting his Democratic primary opponents kicked off the ballot, an example of how many election laws actually restrict democracy. Welch reports that McCain had to be shamed into sharing the proceeds of a “salute to Barry Goldwater” with the Arizona Republican Party. McCain had originally intended for the event to be a fundraiser for his 1992 Senate re-election campaign, but agreed to give half the money to the state GOP when Goldwater objected. Some time later, Goldwater sent his Senate successor a follow-up letter. “You will recall, during my speech at the dinner for the President in Phoenix, I announced that you were going to give half of the funds you raised to the state Republican Party,” he wrote. “I am told by the Party, that you still owe them $35,000, and unless you pay all of it, or most of it, they cannot meet their payroll next Wednesday.”
The putatively reform-minded Obama is at best an inconsistent foe of wasteful government spending. Freddoso points out that Obama supports ethanol subsidies, “a rare policy on which you’ll find National Review’s editors agreeing with Paul Krugman, the liberal columnist at the New York Times,” in opposing the subsidy. In 2007, he secured a $1 million earmark for the University of Chicago Medical Center, where his wife served as vice president and “received a pay raise of nearly $200,000 at just the time when Obama became a senator.” Obama has also suggested that he would not have supported welfare reform.
If none of this sounds like what you have read in the newspaper or heard on television, neither Freddoso nor Welch would be surprised. “Our press normally fixes a critical eye on ambitious politicians who promise us the world,” writes Freddoso. “That eye just seems to well up with tears whenever it falls upon the junior senator from Illinois.” Welch asks, “Who can deny the charm of a powerful man willing to poke fun at himself? Certainly not the national press corps, who were swooning to McCain’s flattering attentions and good-time flyboy humor even before he was taken prisoner in Hanoi.”
While partisans focus on the supposedly seismic gap that would separate an Obama presidency from McCain’s, reading Freddoso and Welch together makes clear that the two presidential candidates have plenty in common. Both candidates see “cynicism” as the problem, with government as the all-purpose solution. McCain’s national-greatness conservatism is the flip side of Obama’s messianic liberalism. They are the ones we have been waiting for, from Des Moines to Darfur.
Obama and McCain agree on expanded taxpayer-funded embryonic stem-cell research, campaign-finance reform, a costly cap-and-trade approach to reducing emissions, amnesty for illegal immigrants, and maintaining the current high levels of legal immigration. Until McCain flipped before his second presidential bid, they both opposed the Bush tax cuts. They agree, with some nuances, on affirmative action and bilingual education. They agree on an interventionist foreign policy, though they would intervene in different places. They agree on effectively imposing pharmaceutical price controls through Medicare (McCain’s otherwise honorable vote against the prescription-drug benefit was largely motivated by this concern.) Even on issues where they disagree, like gun control, they are not always as far apart as advertised—Obama received an F from the National Rifle Association, McCain a C.
Which brings us to another reason Freddoso and Welch’s books go together like red meat and red wine: the case against Barack Obama is the strongest case for John McCain; the case against John McCain is the strongest conservative argument—Obamacon special pleading aside—for Obama.
Freddoso documents that Obama is probably the most pro-abortion presidential candidate in history. He worked to block a bill—virtually identical to the federal law he now claims to support— in the Illinois legislature that would have made it illegal to kill or deny care to children born alive in failed abortion procedures. He beat Hillary Clinton to the NARAL Pro-Choice America endorsement in the Democratic primaries. Obama has vowed to sign the Freedom of Choice Act, of which he is a Senate co-sponsor. This legislation, which supporters say will codify Roe v. Wade, would nullify every official abortion restriction in the country. And Obama supports taxpayer-funded abortion, even though the Hyde Amendment has done more to reduce abortions than any other pro-life policy.
As president, Obama would repeal Reagan’s reforms by pushing marginal tax rates and regulation of the economy back to levels unseen since the 1970s. The nonpartisan National Taxpayers Union has calculated that his campaign promises would increase federal spending by more than $300 billion a year, an amount that cannot be paid for by simply letting the Bush tax cuts expire or even withdrawing from Iraq. “There is no problem in America that Barack Obama cannot solve with a tax increase,” writes Freddoso.
Freddoso’s chapter on Obama’s foreign policy is a fairly conventional critique of the Democratic nominee’s inexperience and inconsistency, with additional material on liberal fecklessness during the Cold War. That’s fine as far as it goes, but it would have been more interesting if Freddoso—an Iraq War skeptic and Ron Paul voter who never criticizes Obama for his decision to oppose the war—had explored his subject’s interventionism. Obama may emphasize diplomacy, but he doesn’t seem to mind adding to our military commitments, from humanitarian excursions in Africa to a new surge in Afghanistan.
Welch’s portrait of McCain is no more flattering. As president, the Republican nominee would maintain the U.S. presence in Iraq, escalate the conflict with Iran, expand NATO until we risk war with a nuclear-armed Russia, and engage in numerous humanitarian interventions. He has lamented the failure to send troops to Rwanda and Darfur, and he also favors a more forceful approach to North Korea.
Domestically, McCain’s support for limited government doesn’t extend far beyond tearing down Bridges to Nowhere. As with foreign policy, his first instinct is always intervention. McCain, Welch writes, has called for “expanding Medicare, cracking down on Hollywood marketers, even banning ultimate fighting on Indian reservations.” He wants to regulate everything from political speech to professional boxing. “National pride will not survive the people’s contempt for government,” he wrote in Worth the Fighting For. “And national pride should be as indispensable to the happiness of Americans as is our self-respect.”
Neither book is an unrelenting hatchet job. Welch doesn’t hold back in discussing McCain’s personal heroism, and Freddoso gives Obama points for thoughtfulness and talent as a writer. But taken together, they don’t inspire much confidence in the next commander in chief. Spend time and read them—perhaps on Election Day.
W. James Antle III is associate editor of The American Spectator.