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McCain And Obama: The Dramatic Differences Are Going To Show

John McCain and Barack Obama
AP
John McCain and Barack Obama

As he campaigned against racial integration in the 1960s, George Wallace complained "there's not a dime's worth of difference" between the Democratic and Republican parties. But nowadays that's only true in primary elections, which is why this week marks such a dramatic and unpredictable shift in the race for the White House.

Strange as it sounds, the first five months of the 2008 campaign have lacked the most powerful force in contemporary politics: partisanship.

John McCain bested a field of Republicans who almost unanimously shared his support for the Iraq War, embrace of President Bush's tax cuts, skepticism toward government-run health care and opposition to abortion rights. Barack Obama outlasted Hillary Clinton in a Democratic competition staking out the opposite ground. (Check out my exclusive interview with Obama in the first video clip).

Now those two self-contained conversations have given way to the broad clash of familiar product lines: Republican conservatism and Democratic liberalism. Mr. McCain rides the tide of recent American history; Mr. Obama surfs the wave that has crested in opposition to George W. Bush's presidency.

The effects of those cross-currents on voters--those following the campaign closely, and those who haven't yet tuned in--remain impossible to forecast.

It's no surprise that Mr. Wallace saw so little difference between Republicans and Democrats. The two parties each harbored a variegated mix of ideological types.

Great Society liberals like Lyndon Johnson flew under the Democratic banner with segregationists like Mr. Wallace. Even as Barry Goldwater led the rise of the Republican right, Senate GOP Leader Everett Dirksen helped LBJ pass civil rights legislation.

By shaking Southern conservatives from their traditional partisan moorings, Messrs. Johnson and Wallace, Richard Nixon and Ronald Reagan, clarified partisan differences. And that had clear electoral consequences.

In the nine presidential elections beginning in 1952, Republican nominees drew an average of 20 percent support among Democratic voters. In the five elections beginning in 1988, they've averaged 12 percent. Democratic nominees drew an average of 9 percent of the GOP vote, slightly below the Republicans' performance among African-Americans.

That shift has largely favored Republicans, victors in nine of the last 14 presidential contests. In what British journalists John Micklethwait and Adrian Wooldridge dubbed "The Right Nation," there are more conservatives than liberals.

Yet the short-term trends flow in Mr. Obama's direction. On Election Day 2004, exit polls showed the proportion of self-described partisans to be identical: 37% Democratic, 37% Republican.

Amid rising discontent with Mr. Bush, the war and the state of the economy, that balance of power has shifted dramatically. In the most recent NBC News/Wall Street Journal survey, 46% of Americans called themselves Democrats, just 33% Republicans.

Mr. Obama's task over the next 22 weeks is to hold that partisan high ground. In industrial battlegrounds such as Michigan, Ohio and Pennsylvania, he'll use his support for tax hikes on wealthy Americans, criticism of trade expansion deals, and plan for government action to broaden health care coverage to remind Hillary Clinton's white working class supporters why they were voting in the Democratic primary in the first place.

He'll do the same with Latino Democrats in Florida and the Southwest. His appeals for "post-partisan" bridge-building may be most useful among upscale suburbanites, especially in swing states like Colorado where those voters have lately drifted away from the GOP.

Mr. McCain, by contrast, will use policy differences to maximize his ideological advantage and thereby reshape the partisan terrain. Thus Mr. Obama's support for ending the unpopular Iraq war will, in his opponent's telling, mark a return to the Democrats' dangerous post-Vietnam foreign policy weakness.

In the same vein, Mr. McCain will argue, Mr. Obama's support for higher upper-bracket tax hikes cloaks a characteristic Democratic push to raise everyone's taxes; his support for government activism on health care, housing, and alternative energy subsidies recalls the Democratic bent for blunting the dynamism of a free-market economy. Mr. McCain's record of maverick stance--on campaign finance reform, on treatment of detainees, on supporting caps on carbon emissions--can strengthen his brand of Republicanism by distinguishing it from that of a president with a 30% approval rating.

Buoyed by the strong economic record of her husband's presidency, Mrs. Clinton argued to the end of her campaign she was better positioned to fend off those GOP tax-and-spend attacks. And there's little doubt that race-based resistance to Mr. Obama's bid to become the first African-American president, will prove greater with the general electorate than inside the left-leaning universe of Democratic primary voters.

At the same time, Mr. Obama's freshness to the national political scene makes it easier for him to blend the words "Democrat" and change" while casting Mr. McCain as a Bush-style Republican. As the five month march to November begins in earnest, polls show Mr. Obama's edge within the margin of error.

Questions? Comments? Write to politicalcapital@cnbc.com.