In the likely event that front-runners Barack Obama and John McCain win in New Hampshire on Tuesday night, the ultimate fantasy of political reporters will move a step closer to fulfillment. Many stumbles and reversals are still possible, of course, but a November matchup between these two men now seems more likely than any other pairing. So permit me to jump the gun and begin comparing them.
Watching Obama and McCain in New Hampshire over the weekend, what struck me was how much they actually have in common. For all their obvious stylistic, ideological, and generational differences, both are anti-politicians whose fundamental argument is that our system is broken in ways that only they are capable of fixing. When McCain and Obama proclaim the need for "change" in Washington, it is neither meaningless rhetoric nor a fancy way of saying throw the bums out. They are both focused on addressing flaws in the political process—the power of special interests, unproductive hyperpartisanship, and the habits of reality-avoidance that afflict both sides.
In the Senate, this critique has led to a focus on systemic issues. The biggest legislative effort of McCain's Senate career and the core of his 2000 campaign was the McCain-Feingold campaign finance bill that passed in 2002 (and which has had very little of the beneficial effect he envisioned). After arriving in the Senate, Obama focused much of his energy on a lobbying and ethics reform bill that passed in early 2006 (and whose chief impact so far seems to be the Washington phenomenon of the lavish dinner eaten while standing). Both represent themselves both as capable of leading a more civil and productive political conversation and inspiring young people to commit themselves to the public good.
Their anti-politics strives to be post-ideological. Though Obama is a fairly liberal Democrat and McCain a fairly conservative Republican, both have an appeal that transcends their voting records. McCain's big victories in 2000 were in New Hampshire and Michigan, states where registered independents can vote in either primary. He suffered in states like South Carolina, where only Republicans could vote in the Republican primary. This time, he will have to share the New Hampshire independents with Obama, who is poised to garner an even larger share. There are Republicans for Obama and Democrats for McCain. You can scour the country a long time before finding many Republicans for Hillary or Democrats for Romney.
It's significant, I think, that both came to us by writing unusually good books. McCain's first campaign took off at signings for his 1999 book, Faith of My Fathers. Obama rode the wave of publicity for The Audacity of Hope, and his earlier, deeper, and more personal Dreams From My Father. McCain's story is about how his years in captivity in Vietnam turned him from a callow troublemaker into a mature rebel. Obama's is about coming to terms with his mixed racial identity and the African father he hardly knew. Both describe passages from selfishness toward maturity and social commitment. These personal narratives allow us to know both men in an unusually intimate way. In both cases, it also seems to have yielded serenity and perspective that are rare in successful politicians.
The sense of intimacy resulting from their books helps to explain why McCain and Obama are media darlings. The press views them as more authentic than their rivals. Reporters also like candidates who can reflect thoughtfully and wittily on what they are doing while they are doing it, which both McCain and Obama periodically do. And the love they get from the press helps explain why others in the Senate don't love either of them. Colleagues regard both men as show horses too focused on their own celebrity, not hardworking enough, and resistant to party discipline. Of course, there is a large element of envy in such judgments.
It can come as a surprise that despite their celebrity, neither man is slick or conventionally charismatic. I went to a McCain town hall meeting on Peterborough, N.H., on Jan. 5 and listened to the same middling shtick I remember him working his way through in 2000. He has the same muddled message, the same meatloaf-in-a diner mediocrity, the same penchant for barely appropriate humor. (What other candidate would begin his presentations with jokes about drunken Irishmen?) At the end of the hour, he noted that he hadn't mentioned, er, the economy, but he didn't go on to mention anything in particular about it. At the same time, McCain's performances are impressive for their sheer doggedness and the candidate's openness. With prolonged exposure, one comes to appreciate his personal wisdom, his resistance to fakery, his humanity, and his integrity.
I saw Obama the next day at a huge rally in Derry, N.H. He's much more of a star than McCain, moving to the stage set up in a high-school gymnasium with a sexy athleticism and delivering a well-wrought speech in his lovely baritone voice. But on most occasions, Obama isn't an especially powerful public performer, either. Like McCain, he is allergic to the kind of demagoguery spewed by a John Edwards or a Mitt Romney. He seems almost suspicious of charisma, afraid that he will be cast in the stereotypical role of the powerful black orator, or that people will respond to him because of his style rather than his substance. There is little virtuosity in most of his appearances.
My favorite scenario for the campaign has Obama and McCain vying for the same running mate—the Democrat-Republican-Independent Michael Bloomberg, who plays perfectly to the pragmatic, political center that both would vie for and who could spend a game-changing amount of money on a presidential ticket that included himself. But don't assume that the common qualities or shared goals of McCain and Obama would result in a civil contest. In early 2006, McCain denounced Obama in an unusually nasty letter for a perceived betrayal on the lobbying reform bill. Obama responded (in a joking context, but still) that his goal was to learn how to be as much of a prima donna as McCain. The front-runners are enough alike to dislike each other intensely.
Slate V compares rallies for Barack Obama and Hillary Clinton, held 24 hours apart at the same high school in New Hampshire: