One defining difference between Democratic and Republican contenders for the presidency is the way they talk about each other, especially in terms of the nation’s most important issues. When Romney delivered his farewell at the Conservative Political Action Conference (CPAC) the other day he disparaged Democratic presidential candidates by suggesting that electing either one of them would endanger the country and signal defeat in the war against terrorists; Senator McCain made similar points when he spoke, both of them all but calling their Democratic opponents enemies of the state.

At the Jefferson-Jackson dinner in Virginia over the weekend the tone was quite different. Senator Clinton spoke of her respect for McCain, a fellow colleague, and Senator Obama was similarly mindful of McCain’s military service and his contribution as a government leader. He did, however, say he thought the wheels had fallen off the “straight-talk express”, managing to make a point without the vitriol the other side has been dispensing.

Of course what passes for straight talk from this administration and its supporters is nothing of the sort. With things going badly in Iraq “the surge” was initiated to give the government there breathing space in which to develop its resources and pursue “reconciliation” among disparate factions; additional troops were sent, tours extended. But when, according to the president, McCain and others, the surge proved effective it wasn’t accompanied by a call to slenderize our presence in Iraq. Rather it seems to have solidified an ongoing policy of occupation, with an Iraqi government no more ready to assume responsible leadership than it was before the surge, and millions of displaced Iraqis still overwhelming neighboring states.

McCain keeps saying it isn’t our presence in Iraq that people object to but rather the casualties, reiterating that we have had troops in place all over the globe for many years without complaint. True enough on both counts, but our military in places like Japan, Germany and Korea are not confronted by insurgencies and internal strife. And, duh, of course it’s the casualties which, if fewer in number, are still occurring in Iraq.

For his part, the president in an interview with Fox correspondent Chris Wallace said much the same thing about the fact that we have troops stationed around the world. And, when questioned by Wallace about Clinton’s suggestion that his planned alliance with the Maliki government would tie the hands of the next administration and should in any case be brought before Congress, Mr. Bush referenced the many agreements that have been forged independent of Congress over the years. And, he added, in a trip to fantasy-land that the United States remains in Iraq at the behest of a “sovereign government”. But, in reality whatever their opinion about the occupation, most people understand that the Maliki government doesn’t govern in any real sense nor does it represent a unified independent, sovereign state.

It seems odd that the Republican mantra hasn’t varied over time – – that fear and division are its greatest components. When asked if he would seek Carl Rove’s advice McCain said he hadn’t asked for his help but since ‘Rove is one of the country’s most brilliant political minds’ he’d be willing to give him a listen. And always, when questioned about his campaign, McCain stresses the need to reach out to his base, not reach out to bring people together and heal the wounds of the past, but to keep the divisions fresh and ongoing in order to validate his conservative credentials.

As Howard Dean has said about McCain’s candidacy – – “from Iraq to health care, social security to special interests, tax cuts to ethics, he’s promising nothing more than a third Bush term.” McCain supports the war in Iraq, speaks endlessly about tax cuts and promises a future of “more wars.” Senators Clinton and Obama, on the other hand, talk about developing policies that would unite the country and forge international alliances to combat terrorism and strengthen struggling economies. Obama says, great things have been accomplished because “someone somewhere was willing to hope”. For now most Americans’ hope is that change is on the way.