A friend asked me to respond to David Brooks' recent column, "Talking Versus Doing," in which he charges that Obama is not really a centrist or a serious change agent because he voted for the pork-laden farm bill -- a bill McCain opposed.
I take this criticism seriously. I usually agree with this friend, and with Brooks. Brooks is a decent centrist -- he is only a "conservative" compared to the rest of the New York Times roster.
Brooks actually cited two cases of the corruption of the Washington system. The farm bill was one, and the energy bill was the other. I agree that both are bad bills, more of a sweetheart deal for the biggest agribusiness and oil companies. That they both passed Congress overwhelmingly is a sign of a deep corruption in our politics.
It is also a sign of the necessity of compromise in making legislation. McCain made his reputation as a maverick -- which he is quickly shedding. Obama made his reputation as a coalition builder, which entails voting for lots of bad legislation in order to get something done. These are two different ways of being a centrist.
What has impressed me from the outset about this primary season is that the electorate of each party has chosen, out of a large initial field, the candidate with the greatest appeal to independents. McCain won best in open primaries in which independents and Democrats could vote. The Republican way of doing primaries meant that he wrapped up the nomination early. If Republicans had had proportional primaries, McCain would still be fighting it out with Romney and Huckabee. Obama has won best in caucuses, where people have to take a public stand and offer some kind of reason for their choice. The reason they are most likely to give is that Obama is a uniter, capable of getting things done.
Any leader has to decide that some things cannot be compromised. McCain has his list - which used to include campaign reform, and still includes torture. Obama has his list, which includes the war in Iraq and his Obama-Lugar bill to control loose nuclear weapons. Leaders also have to decide which bad bills to support anyway, because the deal that made them included some worthwhile elements. Each voter will have to decide on a case-by-case basis whether the leader's no-compromise list matches the voter's list closely enough.
I believe that Obama and McCain are about equally committed to getting things done. I also see each as being within half a standard deviation of the center. I liked McCain the best out of the Republican field as a potential president, and I am enthusiastic about Obama out of the Democratic field. Neither would be a terrible president.
Whether a Democratic or a Republican administration would be better for the country is another question.