Presidential candidates are often defined in terms of their experience, their judgment or, oddly enough, their affability. Sometimes, it is said, voters choose a candidate they can imagine having a beer with – – like George W. Bush. Others, claiming to be “values voters” co-exist comfortably with beer drinkers but not gays. With a liberal sprinkling of fear, Bush stirred up a winning combination that kept him in the White House for a second term. But what a mess lay in store for the American people.

Debate rages over what this season’s candidates stand for, what programs they would initiate and how they would go about implementing them. Senator McCain doesn’t break new ground – – he maintains his posture of being tough as nails about cutting taxes, supporting the war in Iraq and, in general, keeping a high military profile. Except for his recent vote against Senate legislation he said went too far in restraining intelligence agencies’ use of “coercive techniques” (some call torture) he is remarkably consistent.

He isn’t a very original guy often co-opting Democratic tag lines – – he’s “fired up” like Obama and he’ll be ready on “Day One” like Hillary. And he isn’t a compelling speaker either, delivering his remarks after primary wins or on the campaign trail in front of huge banks of American flags, flanked by aging congressional types and political hacks. His message is old and uninspiring, and his commitment to stay in Iraq basically forever isn’t likely to encourage the Maliki government and other leaders there to pull things together instead of continuing to rely on an endless supply of U. S. manpower and funds.

McCain’s insistence that there will be more wars” is a disturbing reminder that putting government in the hands of someone with his background and training ensures policies shaped around a military mindset. And his talk of “victory” in Iraq means a continuation of extended tours for our troops and a drain on our treasury quite unlike the peace-time alliances we enjoy in other countries where troops are stationed. It will be almost another year before the new president takes office, an interval that should provide Iraq time to develop its internal security and address some of its political flash-points. If this does not happen, the real problem is not our political will but Iraq’s.

But whatever steps are taken in the near future they will need to be developed in conjunction with Iraq’s neighbors whether we like them or not. We’ll have to get creative about how we seek to make real progress in the Middle East; military action will only take us so far. It remains to be seen if voters have figured out that foreign engagements undertaken in arrogant disregard for friends and foes alike aren’t a recipe for effective resolution of national concerns.

But Democrats need to be very careful how they talk about Iraq. When Hillary says she will start bringing troops home in sixty days after she is elected she runs the risk of appearing unrealistic about what conditions on the ground might be at that time. And for all her efforts to show how tough she is, this particular version of a timetable makes her seem disingenuous despite the positive reaction she gets from campaign audiences. Her vote empowering the president to take military action in Iraq still angers many in the Democratic base and her recent support of a resolution branding Iran’s Revolutionary Army a terrorist organization was an unpleasant surprise.

This strange inconsistency in Senator Clinton’s positions presents a problem for even her most ardent supporters. As Fareed Zakaria put it in Newsweek (2/11/08) “Hillary Clinton…is highly intelligent, has real experience and is an attractive candidate. But she is terrified to act on her beliefs. In fact, she seems so conditioned by what she sees as political constraints that one can barely tell where her beliefs begin and where those constraints end.” And politics as usual is exactly what most Americans don’t want.

What seems to be driving voters to the polls this time around, quite apart from basic issues, is something less easily defined. The excitement generated by the Obama campaign draws upon a message of hope and the sense that he can be trusted. His lack of Washingtonian experience doesn’t necessarily detract from his appeal; that he knows who he is counts for a lot more. Most of all, voters want to be sure they elect leaders who are what they seem to be, not just some concoction created to make them electable.