It’s the Russo-Georgian War all over again: McCain responds boldly/impulsively, Obama responds carefully/overcautiously, but they both end up saying roughly the same thing, and the pundit class goes back to obsessing about whatever shocking poll or web ad has been released that day.
This is right. The abandonment of even the pretense of a policy debate (and an abandonment of the actual presidential debates!) between the two parties just reinforces one of the features of this and every other cycle, which is more pronounced this year than usual because of the biography-driven nature of both nominees’ candidacies, and this is the irrelevance or near-irrelevance of policy debate in presidential elections. While there are few substantive differences that actually matter–and differences on fiscal and domestic policy are going to evaporate if Congress actually approves of anything like $700 billion for the bailout–and most of the news concerns tactics and the horse race, we are at least being treated to the very different styles that the two candidates offer.
When it came to the war in Georgia, McCain managed to make a position he shares with Obama seem even crazier than it already is, because his generally reckless and impulsive style has led him in the past to stake out provocative anti-Russian views that gave his support for Saakashvili the air of fanaticism. Obama hedged his initial position and then came around to the Washington consensus view, which McCain backers see as dithering and sane people find slightly more reassuring, but in the end he tends to come around to very bad, horrible positions, just as he did on FISA legislation. So, given the alternatives between someone who instinctively adopts a terrible position and someone who grudgingly makes his way to the same position, we are still provided with a pretty striking contrast between the candidates. McCain will have us on tenterhooks on a daily basis wondering whether he will call for impeaching the Supreme Court or bombing Uruguay and he will denounce anyone who questions his proposal as a selfish and corrupt villain, and while Obama might adopt equally awful views he will do so more slowly and allow the rest of us time to organize opposition and rational counterarguments that might actually prevail.