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A Domestic Policy Election

Last night’s debate showed both why it’s terribly important for a Republican to prevail this November, and why it will be terribly difficult.

It is important because Clinton and Obama seem absolutely intent on ignoring the reality of what is happening in Iraq, and following through on a ruinous script their party decided to adopt a year ago. (Maybe the writers’ strike is to blame). For a half hour, they spoke as though the past year simply had not happened, and when they were then asked specifically what they thought about the progress that had been made, they responded by ridiculing the efforts of Iraqis to make the most of the military progress achieved by the surge, and by sending a clear message to all involved that if the Democrats take over, they’ll just pack up and leave. Maybe they’ll take care of the “translators and truck drivers” who helped our forces, they said. Great. They are intent on snatching disaster from the jaws of a real chance at progress in Iraq, and they simply don’t care if we lose. Neither of them came anywhere near words like success, or victory. It’s not in the script.

But the debate also showed again why it won’t be easy for John McCain to make much of this, or to win in November. It increasingly looks as though, crucial as it surely is, Iraq simply will not be the central issue of the 2008 election. This is a mixed bag for both parties, of course—focusing on Iraq might help McCain since it plays to his strengths, but it would hurt him too, since the public is not where he is on the war. But either way, Iraq seems to be falling into the background as conditions improve, and this could well be a domestic policy election.

On domestic issues, McCain’s problem is not that his views are too far from the public’s. It’s that he simply doesn’t care about any of the issues on the table. In fact (as I argue in next week’s issue of National Review) McCain doesn’t actually seem to care about any political “issues” at all. He is moved by honor and country, and this has driven him to be passionately active on a few domestic fronts, but for different reasons than those that motivate just about every other politician. (A misunderstanding of this point has, I think, been behind much of the often excessive distress at McCain’s apparent ascendancy in some quarters of the right this week). And he has not found a way to understand, say, health care in terms of honor, honesty, or character. So even though his campaign has offered a very strong conservative proposal for health care reform, McCain seems incapable of talking about it as though it were even remotely significant.

Both of the Democrats, whatever you think of their particular proposals, can communicate a sense of the significance and urgency of this and the other issues that seem increasingly likely to dominate the general election. McCain’s challenge is not only to persuade conservatives he can carry their banner, but to persuade himself that the concerns and aspirations of the middle class family matter. Although he may well be the Republican with the best chance of winning in November, this won’t be an election that naturally plays to John McCain’s strengths.