Usually, just the opposite is the case. A sitting president normally must accept the boring constraints of real-world choices. Campaigns can inhabit the utopia of their own ambitions.
But it is President Bush and Treasury Secretary Henry Paulson, by proposing the massive government purchase of bad debt, who have assumed the mantle of Franklin D. Roosevelt. It is John McCain and Barack Obama who are playing the role of Roosevelt’s more timid, forgotten foils, "Martin, Barton and Fish." Having last week criticized the role of the Federal Reserve in bailouts — demonstrating a tin ear of elephantine proportions — McCain now calls for a bipartisan oversight board to review the government’s rescue attempt.
Mankind perishes. The world grows dark. McCain calls for a review board.
Obama has been no better, responding with his usual mix of caution and blame. Having delayed the announcement of his own proposal to better gauge the political reception of Paulson’s approach, Obama now helpfully adds that it "can’t just be a plan for Wall Street, it has to be a plan for Main Street" — stepping up to the crisis with his own emergency cliché plan.
The weakness of these reactions is disturbing in itself. It also symbolizes a larger reality. The 2008 presidential campaign has become notable for its vacuity, and exceptional for lacking the exceptional.
It did not begin this way. Early in the campaign, McCain talked about his un-Republican environmental views and undertook a national poverty tour that brought him to places such as Gee’s Bend, Ala., and Inez, Ky. Obama endorsed the outlines of Bush’s faith-based agenda and stated in a Father’s Day speech at an African-American church: "We need [fathers] to realize that what makes you a man is not the ability to have a child — it’s the courage to raise one."
But those sparks of originality and outreach have been doused. McCain’s conventionally Republican economic plan appeals mainly to conventional Republicans. His proposed tax cuts seem unlikely in the new budget situation created by the bailout. And his overall response to the crisis has been shaky and unmoored. Meanwhile, the McCain campaign seems to have determined that winning does not involve raising innovative policy ideas, but raising doubts about Obama himself.
There are reasons for doubt. Obama, who pledged to bridge partisan divisions, is running one of the most liberal campaigns in American history. During an economic slowdown, he proposes a massive redistribution of wealth through the tax code, new mandates on business, and immense new government spending on health care, alternative fuels and public infrastructure. How is any of this distinguishable from Obama’s most liberal congressional colleagues? And how is any of this even possible given the new economic situation we face?
Some may dismiss this ideological predictability as the political norm. It is not. America’s last two presidents ran and governed in at least partial revolt against the consensus of their parties. Bill Clinton supported free trade, eventually accepted welfare reform and urged budget restraint. George W. Bush campaigned for a stronger federal role in education, a prescription drug benefit in Medicare and increased support services for the addicted and homeless.
Why is this strain of presidential independence important? Because both Clinton and Bush — before second-term events obscured their achievements — got much accomplished in their appeal to the middle. Welfare reform has been one of the most successful policy reforms of modern times. After just a few years under No Child Left Behind, test scores for minority children are consistently improving for the first time in decades. Nearly 10 million American seniors now get their prescriptions for little or no cost.
But as Clinton’s and Bush’s influence declined during their respective tenures, some of the worst elements of their parties were unleashed. Post-Clinton Democrats turned against free trade and returned to a tax-and-spend philosophy. Post-Bush Republicans actively alienated immigrants and adopted simplistic, antigovernment rhetoric that narrowed their appeal. A political party either reflects the middle-ground vision of its presidential leader — or it reflects the pent-up anger and polarization of its congressional zealots.
Innovative policy in a presidential campaign is necessary because it eventually makes governing possible. The death of policy in this election will make governing — on the economy and other issues — much more difficult.Michael Gerson’s column is distributed by the Washington Post Writers Group.