Rocky Road to the White House

McCain and Obama both stumble as the race heats up


John McCain and Barack Obama are savvy politicians who have won numerous elections and stand poised to capture the biggest office of all. So obviously, each has a good ear for what will persuade voters and what won't. But even Pavarotti sometimes missed a high note. And lately both candidates have been noticeably off-key.

McCain's bad moment came after Obama expressed bewilderment at his opposition to a new GI Bill expanding educational benefits for veterans. Instead of explaining the genuine flaws in the legislation, McCain decided to climb on his high horse. "And I will not accept from Sen. 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, dripping with contempt.

You catch more flies with honey than with vinegar, and McCain's jibe demonstrated that his personality has an excess of acid content. Angry young men may be indulged, but angry old men tend to get dismissed.

Besides reminding voters that a McCain presidency would not spread healing balm over the body politic, his remark insulted anyone who has never been in the military—which is 90 percent of adult Americans. Just about all of them admire the former Navy pilot's heroism as a prisoner of war. But very few like to be treated as if, by not enlisting, they forfeited their right to speak or vote.

There is also something hypocritical in McCain suddenly using this issue against a political rival. Among the nominees he has voted to confirm for secretary of defense were Republicans William Cohen, who never wore a uniform, and Dick Cheney, who used five deferments to avoid the Vietnam War draft. If these lifelong civilians were entitled to run the Pentagon, why isn't another one entitled to his own opinion about veterans' benefits?

Someone should tell McCain that touting your military credentials is a proven recipe for political failure. The military sociologist (and Army veteran) Charles Moskos of Northwestern University has noted that in recent presidential elections, the candidate with the superior military record has usually fared poorly.

Al Gore and John Kerry, who served in Vietnam, came in second to George W. Bush, who didn't. Draft-evader Bill Clinton beat George H.W. Bush and Bob Dole, who both saw combat in World War II. Jimmy Carter, whose seven years in the Navy included service aboard a nuclear submarine, lost to Ronald Reagan, who spent World War II in the Army making training movies here at home.

So Obama should not expect to be penalized at the polls merely because McCain disapproves of him for bypassing military service. But the Illinois senator may pay a price for his disdain of the economic ethos that fuels our vibrant economy and complements our love of freedom.

In his recent commencement address at Wesleyan University, Obama practically sneered at any students in the audience who would "take your diploma, walk off this stage, and chase only after the big house and the nice suits and all the other things that our money culture says you should buy." He warned the graduates that "fulfilling your immediate wants and needs" indicates "a poverty of ambition."

He urged them to disregard the grubby pursuit of profit in favor of, say, joining the Peace Corps or helping "lead a green revolution" to promote conservation and renewable energy.

What he neglected to mention is that American corporations investing and selling abroad, and American consumers buying foreign-made goods, have done far more to raise living standards in poor countries than all the Peace Corps volunteers who ever lived. As for the "green revolution," Obama doesn't seem to realize that when breakthroughs come, they will most likely come from capitalists intent on making money, not from selfless social workers or community activists.

He may forget that most of his fellow citizens see nothing contemptible in laboring at a mundane job to achieve material success for themselves and their loved ones. On the contrary, Americans generally respect people who work hard and take responsibility for their own welfare. And they understand that what profits those individuals generally benefits the rest of us as well.

McCain should be proud of his military career and Obama of his work as a community organizer. But if only to avoid alienating those who have chosen a different course, they might want to admit there are other ways to live a useful life.