John McCain and Barack Obama have sparred so aggressively over the past few days that those without a calendar in hand might mistake the month of May for the month of October. What began as President Bush accusing Obama of appeasement while in Israel quickly spiraled into a back and forth between the candidates on the value of tough diplomacy. McCain was quick to imply that Obama's willingness to engage his enemies was, in fact, tantamount to appeasement, and suggested that such judgment was proof of his inability to lead.
To the relief of Democrats everywhere, Obama responded in a way uncharacteristic of past Democratic presidential candidates. Where Al Gore may have sighed and released a statement disagreeing, and where John Kerry may have taken to the podium more than a week later, with a long-winded incomprehensible self-defense, Obama instead reacted quickly, forcefully, and in ear-shot of the national press.
Using language he had otherwise reserved, Obama suggested that John McCain's vaunted toughness was phony and "extraordinarily naïve." He swiftly and succinctly tied McCain's foreign policy philosophy to George Bush, arguing that McCain has failed to distinguish his foreign policy vision from Bush's in any distinct way.
The content of Obama's comments was as strong as his tone, which was almost onomatopoetic in its insistence that he too could be strong on foreign policy. "This is what strong countries do," Obama commanded, "This is what strong presidents do... What is John McCain afraid of?"
What John McCain should be afraid of, and what is becoming unmistakably evident from the first major brawl of the general election, is that Obama is not like other Democrats. The playbook that brought praise to Karl Rove does not have the same impact today as it did four and eight years ago. What's more is that, in the argument about who would be the better president, the burden of proof clearly lies with McCain.
Having so intensely wed himself to the status quo, both in terms of policy and posture, John McCain is facing an election in which the policies he supports are dramatically opposed by the public he hopes will elect him. In almost every way, McCain has endorsed the policies of the most unpopular president in modern history, and has done so with the expectation that the voters wouldn't mind. With 81% of the people seeing the country going on the wrong track, John McCain is advocating that we continue full-steam ahead. His only hope is that he can convince Americans that Obama is so horribly unqualified for the job, that they would be better off choosing a man with whom they completely disagree, than the man who offers the vision they seek.
In dust-ups like the one McCain and Obama just experienced, and in the many more to follow, John McCain cannot win such an argument by merely going toe-to-toe. Instead, he has to be crushing, not just painting Obama as weak and inexperienced, but proving beyond all reasonable doubt that this is the case. Having chosen the status quo as his bedrock, the burden of proof lies with him. And when Barack Obama responds, as he did, with grace and strength, with power and an unwavering determination, it will be truly audacious for John McCain to maintain any hope at all.