It looks like the presidential battle will be about one overarching theme: judgment versus experience. And Exhibit A will be the Iraq war.
Barack Obama insists that judgment is more important than experience. Truth be told, he's right. A wise leader with no experience is preferable to a moron with plenty. But that's not really our choice.
John McCain argues that experience yields good judgment. The battle-scarred soldier, the trial-tested lawyer, the accomplished surgeon: They make the right calls because they've clocked field time. McCain contends he's walked through the fire and learned valuable lessons as a result.
Obama's people frame things differently. Obama campaign strategist David Axelrod recently told the Huffington Post: "It is not a question of longevity in government. It is a question of judgment, it is a question of a willingness to challenge policies that have failed. And (McCain) seems just dug in."
On the surface, this all sounds like a perfectly reasonable disagreement indeed, it sounds like precisely the sort of debate we should be having during a presidential election.
The problem is that it doesn't reflect reality. Obama, who was a young state senator from a very liberal district in Chicago and a star parishioner of the Rev. Jeremiah Wright's Trinity United Church of Christ when the country was debating invading Iraq, would have voters believe that he carefully weighed the pros and cons and concluded it would be a bad idea.
You may be willing to give Obama the benefit of the doubt. I am not. A far more plausible explanation is that Obama took the position you would expect him to take. Just as it never occurred to him that his pastor would be an albatross in a national election, it never dawned on him that he should take a stance other than the one expected of anyone on the far left of the Democratic Party, never mind on the far left of the Chicago Democratic machine. This doesn't necessarily obviate Obama's bragging rights, but the idea that in 2002 he would have taken any other stance strikes me as unlikely as Michael Moore siding with the pro-Bush camp.
Even if you want to give Obama the benefit of the doubt, it's hard to give him the benefit of the facts.
As a candidate for U.S. Senate in 2003, Obama said he would "unequivocally" oppose President Bush on the war. But once in office, he voted for every war-funding bill until he decided to run for president.
After the invasion, Obama did not favor an immediate pullout from Iraq. Right around the time he delivered his brilliant keynote address to the Democratic National Convention in July 2004, he told the Chicago Tribune that when it came to the war, "there's not much of a difference between my position and George Bush's position at this stage."
In other words, while he opposed the war, he was committed to Bush's initially flawed military strategy. That was not the position of Moveon.org.
During the long battle for the Democratic nomination, however, Obama's position evolved (or devolved) into a consistent call for withdrawal in order to differentiate himself from Hillary Clinton. When the Bush administration finally surged troops last year, it was Obama who "dug in," insisting that it wouldn't work and in fact would make things even worse.
By last November, the success of the surge was obvious to all open-minded observers, yet Obama insisted that the gains had come merely in a few "certain neighborhoods." Anbar and Diyala provinces are somewhat larger than mere "neighborhoods" (ditto the "Triangle of Death"). In January, Obama's denial took a new form. During a debate, he suggested that progress was attributable to the Democratic congressional victories in 2006, because Sunnis saw that America would soon bug out.
Meantime, there was the supposedly dogmatic McCain challenging Bush's approach to Iraq nearly from the get-go. In the summer of 2003, in response to the upswing in violence, he called for "a lot more military" in order to win in Iraq. He said he had "no confidence" in Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld. In May 2004, McCain told ABC's George Stephanopoulos that "we've got to adjust to the realities of the situation as it exists and that means doing whatever is necessary and acting decisively."
McCain was challenging Bush when Obama was assuring voters there wasn't "much difference" between his position and Bush's. And now Obama is locked into a position despite the facts on the ground. Obama may indeed have great judgment, but his record shows little experience employing it.