Sen. Barack Obama’s Fourth of July visit to Butte, already his fourth to our state is proof, if anybody needed any, that Montana in 2008 is indeed a “battleground” state. Democrats see an opportunity to change the electoral map in Montana where Obama ran well in the June Democratic primary. His message of change seems to resonate, particularly with our state’s young people.
It appears the competition in the presidential race in Montana will be real this year. The choice will be too.
Obama is young, dynamic, handsome, and perhaps the most gifted orator of our time. He personifies his message of change. Sen. John McCain is old, curmudgeonly, and perhaps the most independently courageous figure in a political generation.
In the modern era of attack-ad politics, smart politicians avoid controversial issues. If the issue had an easy and popular solution, it wouldn’t be controversial, or even an issue. He who proposes an answer to a tough public problem will always suffer the consequences. As the saying goes, “no act of courage goes unpunished.”
McCain knows this lesson well. He learned it painfully as a young POW in Vietnam. In his public life he has been punished politically, repeatedly. He wears scars inflicted by his fellow Republicans for teaming up with Democratic Sen. Ted Kennedy to legislate a solution to the problem of illegal immigration on the Mexican border. He was punished by them again for stepping forward with Democratic Sen. Russ Feingold to legislate reform in the way we finance elections. McCain didn’t have to take on either of these controversial issues, both of which required bipartisan support. No doubt he would have been better off politically if he had behaved as a conventional politician. But, then, he wouldn’t be John McCain.
McCain criticized our strategy in Iraq, and when all seemed lost there, at enormous political risk, and in the face of near unanimous opposition from the Democrats, he proposed the “surge” in troop strength. His popularity plummeted, but he stuck to his guns. Now it appears that if we had followed a strategy in Iraq more like McCain’s from the beginning, that war might be over by now.
McCain doesn’t just speak out against the national debt, he actively fights against pork-barrel spending. His dogged opposition to the Alaskan “bridge to nowhere” earned him the enmity of powerful Alaska Sen. Ted Stevens, and his opposition to other wasteful pet projects has no doubt cost him the support of other important Senate insiders. But as McCain puts it, he’s not running for “Miss Congeniality.”
Barack Obama is no John McCain. He is far more articulate, less confrontational. His approach to leadership is to inspire, and he does it beautifully. But when it comes to profiles in courage, his resume is far lighter than McCain’s. As an Illinois state senator, rather than take a stand simply in voting, Obama voted “present” 130 times. He was criticized for this by both of his main opponents for the Democratic nomination, Sen. Hillary Clinton, and former Sen. John Edwards. Obama was able to explain his way out of this sufficiently to keep his abstentions from becoming a major issue. Still, it’s hard to imagine McCain taking advantage of a parliamentary rule to keep from having to stand up and be counted on an issue.
Politics is ultimately about governing, and governing is about leadership. Sen. Barack Obama is truly a remarkable young man as shown by his meteoric rise to sudden national prominence. He may have greatness in him, or at least potential greatness.
What we have not seen, yet, is leadership. Certainly, having spent less than four years in the U.S. Senate, much of it campaigning for president, he has had little opportunity as a senator to demonstrate the character and skills of a leader.
While inspiration is important to leadership, actions ultimately speak louder than words. Obama inspires us with his unifying and uplifting rhetoric. But presidential leadership requires raw and tested courage. McCain isn’t particularly articulate, but his record proves he is a leader. We know that Sen. Obama’s rhetoric proves he can articulate, but the awesome position of leadership he is seeking requires much more than that.
Bob Brown, former Montana State Senate President and Secretary of State, is a Senior Fellow at the University of Montana’s Center for the Rocky Mountain West
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