Outside editorial: Unconventional candidates have conventional views

Posted: Monday, September 08, 2008

The process worked: That was one conclusion from watching the back-to-back party conclaves that ended Thursday in St. Paul, Minn. Yes, the nominating battle was too long and too expensive, and it wasn't always democratic (see: caucuses, rules of).

But on the Democratic side, a large field was winnowed down to the two most formidable candidates, eliminating those less qualified (see: Edwards, John, for example).

The survivor, Sen. Barack Obama of Illinois, the first African American nominee of either party, is short on experience but long on intellect, discipline and, as his smoothly run campaign has showed, managerial competence.

The Republican convention featured former Massachusetts Gov. Mitt Romney, who trimmed and retrimmed his positions in tactical calculations that ultimately failed to derail the steadfast Sen. John McCain of Arizona.

McCain is that rare politician who has held to positions of principle at great risk to his career, including this year on the subject of Iraq, and his nomination offered a measure of vindication for that courage.

In other ways, though, both conventions disappointed. We will spare the reader, at least for today, a lengthy exposition of our usual quadrennial grumpiness about the failure of either candidate to level with voters.

"The challenges we face require tough choices," Obama said in accepting his party's nomination in Denver, but he didn't bother to mention any of them, let alone take a stand on them.

Both candidates promised grand energy initiatives without disclosing that higher fuel prices will be essential to stemming climate change. Both spelled out the details of trillions of dollars in tax cuts, matched only by the gauziest of pledges to reduce spending, or in Obama's case, raise taxes on the rich. Neither detailed the changes that will be needed in Social Security and Medicare if the next generation is to be spared a stifling burden of debt.

We'll pass lightly over those evasions, because this year the conventions offered what was, perhaps, a more surprising disappointment. Though both candidates vowed to shake up Washington, neither offered bold or innovative proposals.

Obama's agenda for the most part might have been lifted from Democratic stump speeches of four or eight years ago. McCain repudiated in a generic way the record of his own party in Washington but again offered little in substance that President Bush hasn't been promoting for the past eight years. Each candidate promised to reach across the aisle but without giving ground from the orthodoxy of his own party.

As the 2008 presidential campaign heads into its final two months, many difficult and consequential issues face the nation: how best to meet the threat of Islamist terrorism; how to end the scandal of failing urban schools; how to cope with inequality of wealth and income without closing the door on the benefits of the global economy.

Given the caliber of both candidates, there's still room to hope that they may engage on these and other issues on a higher level than we heard during the past two weeks.

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