National Commentary

David Brooks: McCain and Obama

SALEM, N.H. — Both Barack Obama and John McCain attract independents. Both have a candor that appeals to voters and media-types alike. Both ask their audiences to serve a cause greater than self-interest. Both offer a politics that is grand and inspiring.

But they are very different men. Their policies obviously conflict, but their skills, world views and moral philosophies set them apart, too. One man celebrates communitarian virtues like unity, the other classical virtues like honor.

Obama's great skill is his ability to perceive and forge bonds with other people. Everybody who's dealt with him has a story about a time when they felt Obama profoundly listened to them and understood them. One of mine came a few years ago.

I was writing columns criticizing the Republican Congress, but each time I'd throw in a few sentences slamming the Democrats, subconsciously trying to make myself feel good. One morning I got an e-mail message from Obama that roughly said: David, if you want to critique us, fine. But you're just throwing in those stray sentences to make yourself feel good.

I felt like a bug pinned down in a display case.

Out of that perceptiveness comes a distinct way of seeing the world. Obama emphasizes the connections between people, the networks and the webs of influence. These sorts of links are invisible to some of his rivals, but Obama is a communitarian. He believes you can only make profound political changes if you first change the spirit of the community. In his speeches, he says that if one person stands up, then another will stand up and another and another and you'll get a nation standing up.

The key word in any Obama speech is "you." Other politicians talk about what they will do if elected. Obama talks about what you can do if you join together. Like a community organizer on a national scale, he is trying to move people beyond their cynicism, make them believe in themselves, mobilize their common energies.

His weakness is that he never breaks from his own group. In policy terms, he is an orthodox liberal. He never tells audiences anything that might make them uncomfortable. In the Senate, he didn't join the Gang of 14, which created a bipartisan consensus on judges, because it would have meant deviating from liberal orthodoxy and coming to the center.

How do you build a trans-partisan coalition when every single policy you propose is reliably on the left?

John McCain has cordial relations with Obama, but he is very different. He is most moved by examples of heroism and individual excellence. His books are about individual character and patriotism, not networks or community-building.

He is not a loner (in fact, he dislikes being alone), but whether he is a prisoner of war or a senator, he is acutely aware of how corrupt social pressures encroach on individual integrity. While Obama seeks solidarity with groups, McCain resists conformity. He fights fiercely, though not always successfully, against political pressures in order to remain honest, brave and forthright.

In the Senate, he sits in the back of the Republican policy lunches cracking jokes at the hired spin-meisters. He is allergic to blind party discipline and builds radically different coalitions depending on his views on each issue — global warming, campaign finance, spending, the war. He is most offended by dishonor. He'll be sitting in his Senate office and he'll read about some act of selfishness — a corrupt Pentagon contract, Jack Abramoff's scandals — and he'll spend the next several months punishing wrongdoing.

McCain's campaign events are unpredictable. At Obama events, the candidate gives a moving speech while the crowd rises deliriously as one. McCain holds town meetings. People challenge him, sometimes angrily. And if they oppose him, McCain will come back to them two or three times so that there can be an honest exchange of views. Some politicians try to persuade their audience that they agree with them. McCain welcomes disagreement and talks about it.

McCain's weakness is that he flies by the seat of his pants. If elected, he will have to live in the cocoon of the White House and build an organized and predictable administration. As a pilot, he got used to taking off from aircraft carriers. But as president, he'll be the guy steering the aircraft carrier.

The central issue in this election is the crisis of leadership. Voters are reacting against partisan gridlock. Obama and McCain both offer ways to end this gridlock. Obama wants us to rise above it by rediscovering our commonalities. McCain hopes smash it with fierce honesty and independent action.

Today in New Hampshire, independent voters get to pick the model they prefer.

c.2008 New York Times News Service