John McCain and Barack Obama have both declared that they want to elevate the tone of political discourse. Before they show us the top, though, they apparently want to explore the bottom. They did a pretty good job of heading in that direction during the debate over the GI bill, enacted by the Senate on Thursday, that would increase education benefits for U.S. troops. Obama, who has said the knee-jerk questioning of the other side's motives has ruined politics, nevertheless claimed that McCain's opposition to the bill was nothing more than "political posturing." McCain shot back with an inflamed 1,000-word response that not only matched Obama in motive-questioning but went on to cite his lack of military service. The crowning flourish was a replay of scenes from McCain's military career that could have been cut and pasted from one of his books.
A great deal has been written about Hillary Clinton and her gender, so let's not ignore the machismo in the boys' behavior. Obama and McCain have been at each other regularly over the last several weeks, and their clashes seem at times not so much a contest of ideas or ideals but rather bristling displays of competitive masculinity. They've traded insults and taunts, mostly over how they'd behave as commander in chief, in an escalating mano a mano. On the current trajectory, one of them is soon likely to drop and do a one-armed push-up or chew on cut glass.
The testosterone flowed over the last two weeks as the pair debated the right way to confront foreign dictators. McCain said Obama's position on negotiating with Iran's President Ahmadinejad was naive and reckless. Obama quickly and forcefully framed McCain's criticism as not just wrong but a sign of weakness. In his speech in Iowa Tuesday night after the Kentucky and Oregon primaries, Obama referred to McCain's "fear of tough and aggressive diplomacy."
Obama has a number of political incentives to show us his muscles. By picking fights with McCain, as he did on the GI bill—and as he did again Friday on Cuba, in a speech in Miami—he creates a fracas that dominates the news cycle and reinforces the idea that the primary is over and the general election has begun. There's no better way to show the 60 or so superdelegates he still needs that he's tough enough to take on McCain than actually taking him on. Plus, he can address one of his perceived weak spots. During earlier primaries, Obama's opponents were always picking on him for being a little soft. John Edwards said he was too nice, and Hillary Clinton spent a week tweaking Obama as a whiner after a tough debate. On the eve of the Pennsylvania primary, she suggested Obama was delicate by running an ad playing off Harry Truman's declaration that if you can't stand the heat, get out of the kitchen.
Now that Obama has tanned both Edwards and Clinton, you'd think he'd be past all of this. But in the twilight struggle for superdelegates, he still needs to show his party that he has the instincts to beat back traditional stereotypes about weak Democrats and manage the hand-to-hand combat of a general election.
With this eternal image to combat, Obama has always been conscious that he must match his call for diplomacy with a show of martial readiness. He almost always prefaces his explanation of his plans for diplomatic outreach and a troop withdrawal from Iraq with a declaration about his military resolve: "I will not hesitate to use force against those who would do America harm." As he has shifted and modified his position on meeting with foreign leaders—tweaking the conditions under which such a thing would happen and with whom, exactly, he would meet—Obama is under even greater pressure to paper over those signs of wobbliness with stout declarations.
As for showing what for to the Republicans, Obama is signaling that unlike other Democratic general election candidates, he will not let attacks go unanswered. For many in his party, that promise—quick and forceful retaliation to all comers—is the key to winning in the fall. As Michael Dukakis put it to CNN, Obama has "to be ready, to respond immediately, to take the fight to McCain, and never to let up. … You cannot let the Republicans do what they did to me and what they did to Kerry."
McCain has less reason to act tough, or so you'd think, anyway. He's toughed his way through at least three near-death experiences, not counting the several he endured during his five years as a prisoner of war. His 1,173 pages of recently released medical records, which document the punishment he's taken during his life, suggest he could almost be classified as a science experiment.
And with Democrats trying to paint him as a reckless warmonger, you might think McCain would confect a few public displays of turning the other cheek. But lately he seems on a quick trigger, as if he's the candidate who needs to prove his mettle. "I will not accept from Senator Obama, who did not feel it was his responsibility to serve our country in uniform, any lectures on my regard for those who did," he said in his response to Obama's Senate remarks.
When Bob Dole ran against Bill Clinton, he didn't mention his service and Clinton's lack of same. He didn't have to. That McCain feels he must suggests Obama has gotten deep under his skin.
There's a chance this shadowboxing will die down soon, since these candidates are still so conscious of maintaining their high-road image. Remember, there was a time when they both wanted to tour the country together debating. In that kind of show, the "who's tougher" bickering would seem small and ridiculous. On the other hand, they could travel with gloves, rope, and a bell, and stage a proper bout.