Reading between the lines

/ Source: National Journal

Here's a wild and crazy thought: On Election Night, after months of predictions that a John McCain vs. Barack Obama race could produce a dramatically reconfigured electoral map, will we once again watch a classic red-blue divide take shape, essentially the same map we've seen in the past two presidential elections? If this week's debate over the economy and taxes offers any clues, the answer is yes.

That's right, we might not see a "red" California or "blue" Virginia -- not even a "purple" Mississippi. Just another America with blue coastlines, a big swath of red in the Mountain West and Deep South and a fierce battle in key Northeastern and Midwestern states.

It makes sense, actually. Each candidate has pushed (and the media has embraced) the storyline that he transcends the tired restrictions of party dictates and reaches across the aisle. McCain and Obama do so hoping to expand their parties' limited bases in an era when polls consistently show high levels of disaffection with both sides. But listen closely to the debate this week over the campaign's No. 1 issue, and you'll hear how comfortably Obama and McCain conform to their parties' tried-and-true orthodoxies, the ones that repeatedly set the stage for a sharply divided — and static — electoral map.

It was a supply-side Republican who addressed a group of small business owners in Washington earlier this week. As the May jobless rate posted its sharpest rise in two decades, the property market fell into deeper crisis and fuel prices topped $4 a gallon, McCain laid out an economic recovery agenda based on looser regulations, corporate tax cuts, free trade and a big emphasis on spending cuts. He also repeated his relatively new support for President Bush's tax cuts, a central part of his economic proposals. While he initially opposed them as a giveaway to the rich, McCain now embraces his pivot and paints Obama as the tax-and-spend liberal that voters have rejected in seven of the past 10 presidential elections.

"Under Senator Obama's plan, Americans of every background would see their taxes rise -- seniors, parents, small-business owners," McCain said. And a day earlier, the self-described soldier of the Reagan Revolution said in an interview with NBC News that Obama seemed to be "running for Jimmy Carter's second" term with his proposals on the economy.

There are, of course, plenty of unpopular presidents to go around these days. Speaking in St. Louis a few hours after McCain's speech on the economy, Obama threw his albatross of choice around his opponent's neck. "I've said John McCain is running to serve out a third Bush term, but when it comes to taxes, that's not being fair to George Bush," he said. "Senator McCain wants to add $300 billion more in tax breaks and loopholes for big corporations and the wealthiest Americans."

In North Carolina a day earlier, Obama also lobbed a partisan hit at McCain's economic plan: "Now Senator McCain wants to turn Bush's policy of 'too little, too late' into a policy of 'even less, even later'."

More than four months out from the conclusion of what has been perhaps the least predictable presidential election ever, it's foolish to pretend we know how the electoral map will look the night of November 4. The most obvious unknown is how voters will respond to Obama's race. But considering the stark choices offered by the two candidates on high-priority issues such as the economy, Iraq, health care and abortion rights, it's hard to see how we're bracing for a whole new world, or even a new map.