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Joan Vennochi

Drawing the presidential battle lines

By Joan Vennochi
Globe Columnist / September 28, 2008
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THINK AGAIN about those bracelets, the ones John McCain and Barack Obama spoke about during their long-awaited first debate.

The bracelets that encircle each presidential candidate's wrist do more than commemorate a US soldier who died in Iraq. They symbolize the dramatically different mind-sets of the men who would be president.

To McCain, honoring the sacrifice of the fallen means one thing: the conflict that took that life must end in victory. McCain, the Vietnam War veteran and former POW, demands a successful strategy for waging war once it is already underway. It is what any American would expect from a battlefield commander. Is it what every American wants from the next commander in chief?

Obama questions the underlying premise for war. To Obama, war may be necessary, but, first, it should never be inevitable.

According to recent polls, Americans are not thinking about war, they are mostly thinking about the economy. Casualties in Iraq are down. The deaths of American companies, not of American troops, are in the headlines.

From an economic perspective, the first presidential debate was a draw. The rhetoric on both sides was routine and unenlightening. Neither candidate committed 100 percent to a bailout package that is still in the works and difficult for many Americans to understand. Although pressed to do so by moderator Jim Lehrer, neither explained how the crisis on Wall Street might change his agenda or perspective if he were elected.

On the economy, the differences between McCain, the Republican, and Obama, the Democrat, break along obvious partisan lines. Neither man talked about how he might bridge those differences from the Oval Office. As the photograph from last week's White House strained session with President Bush suggests, perhaps a round table, in the tradition of King Arthur, would be a good start.

McCain and Obama preached to their respective choirs. If you're rich, you believe money trickles down and you want as little trickling as possible. If you're not rich, you know the trickle will never be strong enough to keep you from worrying about the next mortgage payment or college tuition bill.

From Main Street to Wall Street, we all think about Number One, our own personal interest as defined by dollars and cents. But this debate, however briefly, offered an opportunity to think about another kind of number - not the value of a home or a stock portfolio, but the value of a life.

The life of Matthew Stanley, the 22-year-old Army specialist killed in combat outside of Baghdad, whose bracelet McCain wears; the life of Ryan David Jopeck, the sergeant commemorated by the bracelet Obama wears. The more than 4,000 other American troops killed in Iraq, the tens of thousands of injured, and the hundreds of thousands of Iraqi casualties.

The way McCain and Obama look at those numbers reflects a critical difference in approach, and personal history.

McCain is the old soldier who sees the world through the prism of the Vietnam War. He still doesn't question the premise of Vietnam or the Iraq invasion. He still wants to win both. He said Stanley's mother made him promise that "You'll do everything in your power to make sure that my son's death was not in vain."

Comparing it powerfully as always to his own combat experience, McCain said, "A war that I was in, where we had an Army, that it wasn't through any fault of their own, but they were defeated. And I know how hard it is for that - for an Army and a military to recover from that - we will win this one and we won't come home in defeat and dishonor."

Obama had to glance down at the bracelet around his wrist, as if to remind himself of Jopeck's name. But Obama got to the fundamental question for the next president: "Are we making good judgments about how to keep America safe precisely because sending our military into battle is such an enormous step."

Think again about the bracelets worn by McCain and Obama. Each honors a memory of bravery and service to country. The man who wins and wears the bracelet into the White House charts the future course of war or peace for America.

Joan Vennochi can be reached at vennochi@globe.com.

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