he stakes in almost any presidential election are immense. But they are not always clear. Eight years ago, for instance, the economy was strong, the country was at peace, and it was not at all obvious to a lot of voters that their choice for president in November would have much effect on this happy state of affairs. Many complained that there was not much difference between the candidates. Al Gore was seen as a cautious centrist, despite his sometimes-populist rhetoric. George W. Bush came off as a pragmatic conservative who would cut deals with Democrats, despite complaints by some—including, in my presence, then president Bill Clinton—that the Texas governor was far more right-wing than he let on.
Bush and Gore did, in fact, disagree on a range of issues. But the issues themselves, like what to do with the federal budget surpluses, lacked a sense of urgency. Voters simply couldn’t have known how historically pivotal the election would turn out to be—pivotal because it would place George W. Bush and Dick Cheney in the White House on 9/11, and hence able to unleash all that followed. And so it was almost excusable that the race revolved around questions of character and personality and cultural resentment—about Al Gore’s sighs and whether George Bush was someone you’d want to have a beer with.
This year, however, voters have no such excuse. The crises the next president will face are happening now: economic decline, financial market meltdowns, two intractable ground wars, an increasingly dysfunctional health care system. No one can possibly believe that there are no great issues at stake in this campaign, or that the candidates’ distinctly different views on those issues somehow don’t matter.
And yet, as I write, the race is being driven by questions of character and personality and cultural resentment, much to the benefit of John McCain and Sarah Palin. "This election is not about issues," said McCain campaign manager Rick Davis after the GOP convention. "This election is about a composite view of what people take away from these candidates." To the extent that McCain and Palin do talk about policy, it is with stunning disregard for the truth and a swaggering assurance that their supporters, at least, do not mind.
The fact that the McCain ticket has benefited politically by abandoning honest discussion of policy is, of course, deeply depressing to anyone with a residual belief in the basic rationality of the American voter. But it is worth remembering that McCain’s strategy is driven by a fundamental vulnerability: poll after poll shows that voters do not agree with McCain and the GOP on most issues. McCain has opted to run instead on a virulent form of American identity politics because that is his only hope of winning.
I wouldn’t be surprised if it worked. Americans have always been more susceptible to those kinds of appeals than Democrats like to admit. But it doesn’t follow that Obama should stop focusing on the issues. Quite the opposite: his only chance of victory is to move the discussion back to where he is strongest and McCain is weakest.
Obama can also use issues to counter the McCain camp’s attacks by tapping into a more substantive strain of American nationalism. Bill Clinton did so in 1992 by thanking Ronald Reagan and George H. W. Bush for winning the Cold War, then accusing them of selling out American economic interests by refusing to take on our Asian trading partners over their closed markets. The issue landscape today is littered with similar opportunities: Health care policies that disadvantage our companies in global competition. Fiscal policies that put us half a trillion dollars in hock to China. Technology policies that leave Americans with broadband one-fourth as quick as that of the French. Obama should hammer away at these issues, not in high-minded civics-y fashion but with a hint of righteous anger at those who would endanger America’s future with ideas that have failed us so spectacularly.
Will a greater focus on the issues really change many minds? Maybe not. But it’s worth trying to give voters an honest sense of what the consequences of their choices are likely to be (if only for the satisfaction of saying "We told you so"). Hence this month’s cover package, in which we have asked a group of our esteemed contributing editors to think through the likely end results of a McCain or Obama win on the big issues facing the nation—from health care to education to the courts to the economy to our relationship with China. The election might or might not hinge on these issues. But the future of the country certainly will.