Doctrines and Biographies

 Posted by  Tom Niblock

The tone of tonight’s debate was expected to be sharper. Both candidates remained civil, but pointed, in their criticisms. But unlike men, not all criticisms are created equal, and neither are they endowed by their originators with certain inevitable tendencies. Some criticisms are good, others are bad, and it is not predestined that the good ones become bad over time.
For example, look at the “Wall Street bailout” issue. Both Senators McCain and Obama expressed support for public intervention to stabilize the economy, and both voted for the final bill in Congress. On this issue, there is little space between the candidates’ positions. While some are happy to see this convergence of ideas, in a campaign for political office it tends to lead to personal attacks. The candidates must argue about something. If they can’t argue about ideas, they’ll argue about each other. This was the case in the Democratic primary race between Senators Clinton and Obama and nearly became the case tonight.
However, America was saved by disagreement. There are fundamental differences between these two men and their approaches to government. Senators McCain and Obama presented radically different visions for the future of the health care system and the proper role of government in bringing that system to life.


For the most part, the domestic policy portion of this debate was uninformative. The candidates ignored the questions, the time limits, and even the moderator at times. The foreign policy portion, however, shed new light on the presidential campaign.
For the first time since normal people started paying attention, each candidate presented a doctrine for the use of force. Senator Obama defined the occurrence of genocide, even in lands far removed from American soil, as part of our national interest in some circumstances. This suggests a more activist pursuit of humanitarian interventions than Senator McCain’s doctrine for the commitment of forces, which would apply the question “Can the United States beneficially affect the situation?” to each particular instance of humanitarian need.


While biography is not the principal difference between these two candidates, it is certainly a difference, and each candidate took full advantage of the last question to tell his story. Senator Obama’s story is a story of opportunity. America gave him an opportunity to succeed, and he envisions the presidency as a means to restore those opportunities for the next generation. Senator McCain’s story is a story of service. His commitment to the Nation was tested, but it was not found wanting. He envisions the presidency as a means to continue a lifetime of service.
With each candidate presenting different ideas and different stories, this debate clarified the choices facing the American public.


The writer is a second year graduate student in public policy and international relations in the Woodrow Wilson School of Public and International Affairs from Nevada, Iowa.  His blog on religion and politics can be found at


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The mission of Princeton’s Center for the Study of Democratic Politics at the Woodrow Wilson School is to promote empirical research on democratic processes and institutions.  That broad mandate has attracted a diverse collection of faculty, students, and visitors pursuing a wide variety of research topics. However, the American electoral process has been a recurrent focus of interest for many of the scholars associated with CSDP and a frequent topic of conferences, colloquia, and other events sponsored by the Center.  As the 2008 campaign unfolds, we thought it might be helpful and fun to collect the election-related research, analyses, and offbeat insights of our extended scholarly community, both for our own edification and as a resource for others interested in how political scientists are thinking about the election.  We welcome contributions, comments, and suggestions. For more about the people and activities of CSDP, please visit our website, To post a comment, click the "speech bubble."

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