Issues Recede in ’08 Contest


By: Wall Street Journal

As Voters Focus on Character Candidates Pitch Style, Avoid Big Ideas;
‘Folks Are Tired of Partisan Paralysis’

Democrats and Republicans have reached the biggest primary day in the nation’s history with this much in common: No major candidate on either side has yet offered up ideas or policies that amount to a new ideological course for the country.

As voting unfolds today on this Super Tuesday, the two hottest candidates at the moment — Republican John McCain and Democrat Barack Obama — are most striking for their ability to appeal to independent voters in the middle of the ideological spectrum, and for their willingness to compromise to get there.

In other words, the election of 2008, thus far, is less about ideology and ideas and more about governing style and leadership ability — intangible qualities on which voters are placing a higher priority than on issues. The tenor seems a reflection of the country’s mood: Many voters are in revolt against the partisan wars and bouts of gridlock that have gripped Washington in recent years, and are seeking effectiveness above all.

That makes the election debate so far quite different from, say, 1980, when Ronald Reagan settled a debate within the Republican Party by offering a new conservative course of giant tax cuts and big defense spending. It’s also different from 1992, when Bill Clinton molded a different Democratic Party by moving to the right on trade, the budget deficit and welfare reform. Those were big policy ideas that also happened to have big political impact.

Yet that doesn’t appear to be what voters are seeking this primary season. On the Democratic side, “there is no correlation in the exit polls so far between the issues people think are important and the candidates they vote for,” says Andrew Kohut, who conducts polling for the Pew Research Center. “It’s about the qualities of the person.”

In the South Carolina primary on Jan. 26, exit polls indicated that Democratic voters who said the economy was the most important issue voted for Sen. Hillary Clinton and Sen. Obama in nearly the same proportions as did those who said the war in Iraq or health care were the most important issues. And in the New Hampshire primary, Democrats who said they favored withdrawing all American troops from Iraq as soon as possible — voters who might have been expected to go toward Sen. Obama, the most staunchly antiwar candidate — instead broke for Sen. Clinton, 41% to 34%.

On the Republican side, a December Wall Street Journal/NBC News poll found that the characteristic on which John McCain ranked lowest among Republicans surveyed was: “Shares your position on issues.” He scored higher on such traits as being knowledgeable and experienced enough to handle the presidency, and being honest and straightforward. Nevertheless, Sen. McCain has assumed clear front-runner status and was in a commanding position in national polls going into today’s primaries.

One Republican voter looking past issue positions is Rick Page of Wheaton, Ill., who works in commercial real estate. He says the economy is the top issue for him. He has studied former Massachusetts Gov. Mitt Romney’s positions on the economy, he says, but has picked Sen. McCain for his governing style.

“I like the straight talk,” Mr. Page says. “He just lays it out like it is. Sometimes it doesn’t sound great. It’s not what you want to hear, but you know what he believes.”

Once the primaries are past, of course, there will be big differences on key issues between the Republican and Democratic nominees. In particular, there is likely to be a stark debate over the wisdom of the Iraq war, particularly if the nominees are Sen. McCain, who has turned defense of the war into a cornerstone of his candidacy, and Sen. Obama, who has trumpeted his opposition to the war from the outset.

If Sen. McCain is the Republican nominee, that will bring about a “fundamental debate,” says William Galston, an analyst at the Brookings Institution who worked in the Clinton White House. “Sen. McCain sees the future of Iraq through our experience in West Germany and South Korea,” which became permanent outposts of American power, Mr. Galston says. Any Democratic nominee isn’t likely to share that vision, he says.

But that debate will be more about dealing with the residue of a past decision — the Iraq invasion — than about charting a new ideological course for America in the world. Indeed, the debates now under way within the two parties are striking for their lack of new direction.

To some extent, voters seem to be looking for candidates who can transcend the paralyzing policy debates of the past decade, a feature of a national government closely divided between Democrats and Republicans. To many voters, precisely what gets done seems less important than the prospect that something actually will get done.

The growing numbers of voters registered as independents, and the tendency of young voters to respond to Sen. Obama’s portrayal of himself as a “post-partisan” politician, show the direction public sentiment is moving.

“Results do matter, and competence matters,” says Kansas Gov. Kathleen Sebelius, a supporter of Sen. Obama. “But at the end of the day, I think folks are really tired of this partisan paralysis they see in Washington and want somebody, some CEO, at the helm who can get results.”

Governors’ Path

Gov. Sebelius, a Democrat who stressed the need to transcend partisan politics when she delivered her party’s televised response to President Bush’s State of the Union speech last week, argues that governors have been ahead of national politicians in moving down this path. The nation has 28 Democratic governors, she notes, and precisely half of them, herself included, come from states President Bush carried in 2004, sometimes by wide margins.

The mind-set of voters may have a lot to do with the historically low job-approval ratings being given these days to both Congress and President Bush. That’s why “change,” rather than “taxes” or “national defense,” has been the most important category of discussion for the leading candidates.

To be sure, the leading presidential candidates have squadrons of policy advisers churning out reams of position papers on all manner of subjects. But those policy positions aren’t dominating the debate. They tend to represent modest variations on existing mainstream positions, not bold new statements about what it means to be a liberal or a conservative.

On the Republican side, Sen. McCain and his main foe, Mr. Romney, have clashed mostly over who is more true to the Reaganesque conservative principles established 28 years ago as party pillars. Mr. Romney says he’s closer to the Reagan belief in the primacy of tax cuts; Sen. McCain has argued that his more open view of immigration mirrors the Reagan view.

On the Democratic side, there isn’t any great ideological difference between Sens. Obama and Clinton. Their policy arguments have largely turned on important but narrow questions such as whose health plan would bring “universal” health coverage and whose would only come close.

Much of the struggle between them has been over such intangibles as ability to inspire, skill at orchestrating compromises in Washington, and experience in bringing about change. Sen. Obama’s campaign is largely built upon the promise of “hope” for uniting a fractious Washington.

Deanna Thompson, a 31-year-old independent voter from Huntsville, Ala., says she’s decided to vote for Sen. Clinton over Sen. Obama in today’s primary. “On issues, they don’t vary much, the two of them,” Ms. Thompson says. “I like that she’s very strong-willed, very strong-minded….She has so much more experience in politics and decision-making.”

The boldest policy proposals have come from second-tier candidates. Former Arkansas Gov. Mike Huckabee has proposed eliminating the income tax and replacing it with a consumption tax. Rep. Ron Paul offers a libertarian set of policies that would represent radical change. But those ideas have remained in the background.

The risk for the two parties may be that neither, at least so far, is road-testing the kinds of strikingly different ideas that can recharge the intellectual batteries. For voters, the danger may be that they’ll be disappointed and disillusioned in the long run if candidates promising to end partisan discord fail to do so after the election.

Deep Splits

The Brookings Institution’s Mr. Galston sees continuing deep splits between the parties on the future of the Bush tax cuts, which Republicans pledge to extend and Democrats want to end, and on whether markets or government action are the best way to fix problems in the health-care system.

“Everybody would like to avoid ideological debates,” says Republican Rep. Tom Cole of Oklahoma, who heads his party’s congressional campaign committee. “The problem is that they are real. Democrats really do want taxes to go higher. They have a different view of the American role overseas than we do.”

Democratic pollster Peter Hart, who helps conduct the Wall Street Journal/NBC News poll, says that for now, “this country is desperately looking to come together…. In that regard, that really isn’t about all the kinds of cleavages and small differentials between candidates.”

–Alex Frangos contributed to this article.

Write to Gerald F. Seib at jerry.seib@wsj.com

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