What's at Stake
I saw in the Times today that Democratic leaders are starting to get fidgety about the presidential election, fretting that Barack Obama has yet to put McCain away and suggesting that he needs to start offering more specifics. This strikes me as correct in part and wrong in part: they're justified in the concern, but wrong in what should be done. The Democrats' generic advantage remains so strong, and public revulsion at Bushism in all its aspects so vivid, that Obama (or, perhaps, his surrogates) should go on the attack--not hyperbolically, not sarcastically, but factually.
The campaign needs to make the point that presidential power is primarily fourfold, and that in the exercise of every one of those facets of power, Obama and the Democrats are much more in tune with the current priorities and wishes of the public than McCain and the Republicans.
The first two facets are the powers of appointment to the judiciary and bureaucracy. I think it's generally agreed that the Bush approach to these executive prerogatives has been a net negative: the courts now seem to be to the right of the public, certainly on economic matters and arguably on social matters. The example always used--in fact, the only aspect of this ever discussed in the mainstream media--is that one more anti-abortion vote on the Supreme Court throws reproductive rights into probably fatal jeopardy; but that's really the least of it. The appointments of John Roberts and Samuel Alito have led to a series of decisions limiting workers' redress against employment discrimination, corporate liability for irresponsible conduct, and governmental power to regulate political campaigns among many other broadly unpopular holdings. The Bush-era abuses of the bureaucracy--the unstated view that, in the eyes of conservatives, inept government is the best government, as well as the comprehensive politicization of essentially administrative agencies (embodied by fanatical dimwits like Monica Goodling)--are even more viscerally repugnant to voters--or would be, if Obama were to hit the issue hard enough.
On both issues, Obama can leverage the Democrats' current voter-ID edge because the nature and typical usage of these powers--which get minimal attention during the campaign, of course--is why partisan voting almost always is the rational course. If you want judges of a certain temperament and mindset, or you have more or less blind faith in "the market" to produce outcomes that serve the general good, that's almost always going to lead you to support one party or the other at the federal level based on its core philosophy. This is also where the Ralph Nader/George Wallace argument that there's no difference between the two parties falls apart.
The third facet of presidential power where Obama has the advantage is the president's ability to either thwart or enable Congress. If you take it as read that the Democrats will maintain control of Congress, and probably expand their margins somewhat, having Obama simply "get out of their way" will mean that a lot of popular measures George W. Bush has blocked--including stem cell research, S-CHIP reauthorization and expansion, and a drawdown of forces in Iraq among many others--will go forward. It might seem counterintuitive to link the presidential candidate with a stunningly unpopular Congress--until you recall that a big reason for that unpopularity is because they've gotten so little done, and that Bush and the Republicans have blocked most of these popular measures.
This brings us to the fourth facet of presidential power: shaping the national agenda. (I'm putting foreign policy in this bucket, though it certainly could merit its own.) McCain has said, "There will be other wars." The enthusiasm he's shown for open-ended commitments in Iraq, a belligerent posture vis-a-vis Iran and Russia and maybe China, and generally the way he seems to perk up at the figurative smell of gunpowder suggests he is, at least in this instance, truly offering "straight talk." And, in probably my biggest single disappointment given his history, he hasn't breathed a word that I'm aware of about pruning the unfathomably bloated Pentagon budget.
(I actually don't think Obama has the political courage to take on defense spending; probably no Democrat would, other than maybe Sen. Jim Webb if somehow he became President. No Republican would, of course, because it's evidently axiomatic to them that defense spending is never "wasteful." But Obama won't look eagerly around for new wars to fight--as McCain's recent saber-rattling on Georgia and Russia again suggests he would. That's a pretty big deal. I also suspect the Democrat would be much more assertive in ending torture, pursuing diplomacy where appropriate and re-examining some old orthodoxies (like the Cuba embargo), and emphasizing a pro-worker agenda in trade negotiations.)
In terms of domestic/economic priorities, Obama has talked endlessly about universal health care and ending dependency on foreign oil. McCain shrugs away the problems of the health care system, and while he talks a decent game on oil, he couldn't even be bothered to show up and vote for the extension of the alternate-energy tax cuts he claims to support. His domestic/economic agenda boils down to more-of-same from the last eight years: tax cuts for the richest, and irresponsible--actually incoherent--budgeting. His talk about spending cuts won't ever fly in a Democratic-controlled congress, for better and for worse. The resultant gridlock would amount to a replay--maybe an intensification of--the Bush-era pattern of absurdly draconian domestic budgets and a pushback from Congress, serving both sides' political interests (the Republican executive valiantly tries to hold the line on spending, while the guys who face the voters more frequently stand up for the citizenry that depends on those programs) but not the national interest. Certainly, forget about the big new investments in infrastructure and education that most Americans seem to support. The one arguable positive domestically of a McCain administration is the possibility of a grand compromise on immigration, along the lines of what he proposed a year or two ago... which of course would infuriate the Republican right. But I think that would be almost equally likely under Obama, who presumably wouldn't be as worried about what Michelle Malkin or Rush Limbaugh "think."
So that's how I would contest this race were I an Obama strategist: remind the public relentlessly that McCain is a Republican, and force him either to own up to the disastrous and unpopular Bush legacy or repudiate it, driving a large chunk of his base to the sidelines.
One last point, sort of along these lines but also the way I'm starting to rally myself to care about all this again: I think the single most important aspect of this election is for American voters to show the world that we repudiate the Bush legacy of torture, partisan polarization of even everyday government functions, economic irrationality and short-sightedness, and near-mindless belligerence on the world stage. Since McCain has chosen to embrace the bulk of that legacy, he must be defeated. The way the race is playing out in the moronic media, it's all about Obama--but to me, this is still about Bush and the foul perversion of American governance he's perpetuated since 2000.