Paul Greenberg

These are times that try conservatives' souls. The polls all say so. Yet there are satisfactions. For some of us would rather go down with the U.S.S. McCain than join the multitudes at the shrine of the Savior of the Moment. Duty calls.

Also judgment. For there's never been any question who's the known quantity in this presidential race, is there? John McCain has been around for what seems like forever, or at least since the Reagan Revolution. He's served his country in war and peace, generally with distinction, regularly with heroism.

Agree or disagree with Sen./Naval Captain McCain's stands, he's taken them. Including some that were not popular with his political base, like trying finally to fix the country's broken immigration system, or joining with the reasonables on the other side of the aisle to fill all those vacancies on the federal bench. He's been his own man, gone his own way, and never tried to cover his tracks. If he had, it wouldn't have worked. Unlike his opponent in this election, he lacks the rhetorical talent to obfuscate eloquently.

If there is a single issue, stand, time or decision that sums up the choice in this presidential election, it is the contrast between these two presidential candidates on what has become known as the Surge.

Only last year, even the name for this new strategy in Iraq was debatable, and the odds against its succeeding disheartening. Well, at least the left was disheartened. And maybe most of the middle, too. In January 2007 -- not so long ago, really -- one poll showed American public opinion on Iraq to be sharply divided: A majority of Americans -- 71 percent -- was split between those who thought the war was going only badly and those who thought it was going very badly. Not since Vietnam had Americans been so demoralized in wartime.

Any presidential candidate in these dismal circumstances who would have thought, let alone said, that the country could yet pursue a winning strategy in Iraq would have been inviting defeat. Which is what John McCain did. It wasn't the first time he'd shown extraordinary courage. And leadership. By now he's been vindicated by events. For only those in ideological denial still refuse to recognize that the Surge has worked, and that victory in Iraq is within reach. If we don't let it slip away.

On this key and representative issue, Barack Obama's statements could sum up the whole difference -- of attitude, personality and direction -- between these two candidates. "I am not persuaded that 20,000 additional troops in Iraq are going to solve the sectarian violence there," he said when the Surge was still only a plan and hope. "In fact, I think it will do the reverse." And throughout this campaign, he's held on to his unshakable belief in American defeat -- even as victory nears. To quote Joe Lieberman, one Democrat who has never lost faith in the American cause, Sen. Obama's policy has been simple: "Hear no progress in Iraq, see no progress in Iraq, and, most of all, speak of no progress in Iraq."

Even though by now all five combat brigades involved in the Surge have left Iraq, a free and independent Iraqi government takes precarious hold, and American deaths in combat reached a new monthly low in July (5). Every American casualty pains, but that doesn't make the success of the Surge any less important. Or less revealing when it comes to choosing the next president and commander-in-chief of the armed forces.

Ah, but that's just foreign policy, they say, and who cares about that? For American public opinion is making its inevitable swing back to an almost instinctive isolationism. After all, we came to these shores to get away from the world's problems. (Even if the world's problems will scarcely stay away from us, as we have learned, or rather should have learned, time and again.) So what kind of domestic policies would each of these presidential nominees follow if elected?

There, too, on issue after issue, the choice is clear whether we're talking about taxes, health insurance, free trade, education, congressional earmarks, protection for the unborn and even the newly born, the federal deficit, energy policy, the kind of judges appointed to the U.S. Supreme Court and the rest of the federal judiciary, and even freedom of speech. (Barack Obama doesn't dare say so openly, but he hints at subjecting the airwaves to a revival of the old Unfairness Doctrine to rid him of those meddlesome talk-show hosts and Fox News types.)

On all those issues, John McCain comes down on the side of greater freedom, less spending, more choice and a greater respect for the individual. The choice between these two candidates may be clearest when it comes to two signature issues: keeping the secret ballot in union elections (Barack Obama would abandon it) and taxing the capital that creates jobs.

Sen. Obama explains that he'd raise taxes only on the other fellow, that is, The Rich, as if the rich didn't have the sense or at least the lawyers and trust administrators to start moving into all the numerous and not very productive tax shelters available to them. (In anticipation of an Obama administration, estate planners are already pushing new ones.)

Tax increases that are supposed to affect only those in the upper brackets have a sure way of drifting down into the middle class as the government reaches for ever more revenue. Because that's where the unsheltered income will be. Call it the Obama Shift. One candidate, John McCain, would let small businesses, individual entrepreneurs and capital in general create jobs; the other would just squeeze it.

None of this is to deny Barack Obama's charismatic appeal. He is not so much campaigning for president as announcing a messianic era. ("I am absolutely certain that generations from now, we will be able to look back and tell our children this was the moment when we began to provide care for the sick and good jobs to the jobless; this was the moment when the rise of the oceans began to slow and our planet began to heal!") Barack Obama's rhetoric can be blinding (if a little silly), so shiny yet vague that any voter can project his favorite fantasy onto the screen he projects.

In this, the Age of Celebrity, the coming election of President Obama -- for don't the polls say he can't lose? -- would be the crowning triumph of personality over character. But who is he? There is still a hollowness, a cultivated distance, at his political core, however obscured it may be by his undeniable, even attractive manner. In that respect, he resembles Ralph Ellison's Invisible Man, who moves through events coolly observing and analyzing them rather than taking part in them.

Is there any doubt who is the unknown quantity in this presidential election?

In the end, what matters most in this presidential election, as in life perhaps, is not who was right but what is right. And that is the ground on which any conservative should stand. With John McCain.


Paul Greenberg

Pulitzer Prize-winning Paul Greenberg, one of the most respected and honored commentators in America, is the editorial page editor of the Arkansas Democrat-Gazette.