WASHINGTON — The boilerplate in a candidate’s speeches gets little attention because words used over and over never constitute “news.”

But one of John McCain’s favorite lines — his declaration that “the transcendent challenge of the 21st century is radical Islamic extremists,” or, as he sometimes says it, “extremism” — could define the 2008 election.

Whether McCain is right or wrong matters to everything the United States will do in the coming years. It’s incumbent upon McCain to explain what he really means by “transcendent challenge.”

Presumably, he’s saying that Islamic extremism is more important than everything else — the rise of China and India as global powers, growing resistance to American influence in Europe, the weakening of America’s global economic position, the disorder and poverty in large parts of Africa, the alienation of significant parts of Latin America from the United States. Is it in our national interest for all these issues to take a backseat to terrorism?

McCain makes his claim even stronger when he uses the phrase “21st Century.” Does he mean that in the year 2100, Americans will look back and say that everything else that happened in the century paled by comparison with the war against terror?

But such a debate won’t happen unless Barack Obama and Hillary Clinton challenge McCain’s assertion directly and offer an alternative vision. There is reason to suspect they might be fearful of doing so. They shouldn’t be.

No doubt the Democrats will say that McCain’s openly and frequently confessed lack of interest in economic policy is exactly what the country does not need. For many Americans, the transcendent challenge of 2008 is righting a jittery economy and rolling back extreme inequality. That could well move into a debate about the impact of China on our economy and the structure of global commerce.

But for Democrats, that’s the easy part. I worry that every political consultant worth a six-figure payment will tell the Democratic nominee that fighting the election on broad foreign policy questions (as opposed to a limited dialogue built around a simple “Bush Bad, Iraq War Dumb, McCain Backs Both” theme) would be to play to McCain’s strengths.

There’s nothing wrong with criticizing Bush or the war. But if McCain’s “transcendent challenge” claim falls apart on close examination, the best rationale he has for his election would disappear.

Moreover, whether they like it or not, Democrats will have to explain how they would defend U.S. interests in the world. A majority of Americans are now prepared to hear (in a way they weren’t in, say, 2003) an argument that allowing terrorists and terrorism to define American foreign policy is neither in our interest nor particularly useful in fighting terrorism itself.

Of course, defeating terrorism is important, and no candidate will say otherwise. But the United States has a lot of work to do in the world. If we’re thinking about the next two decades, not to mention the next 90 years, it’s a mistake to see terrorism as a “transcendent challenge” that makes all our other interests secondary.

For conservatives, there is something peculiar about turning Islamic extremism into a mighty ideological force with the power to overrun the world. It’s odd that so many take seriously Osama bin Laden’s lunatic claims that he will build a new Caliphate. (And, by the way, exactly what did the Iraq war contribute to the fight against terrorism?)

In his new book on neoconservatism, “They Knew They Were Right,” Jacob Heilbrunn quotes Owen Harries, an early neoconservative whose realist bent has made him skeptical of the latest turn in the thinking of his erstwhile comrades. Harries argues that viewing terrorism as an ideological challenge akin to Nazism or Soviet communism is neither accurate nor prudent.

“I think it’s to belittle the historical experiences of World War II,” Harries says, “not to speak of the Cold War, to equate the terrorists of today and the damage they’re capable of with the totalitarian regimes of the previous century.” Underestimating our enemies is a mistake, but so too is endowing them with more power than they have.

In this week’s New Yorker, Ryan Lizza argues that McCain has gone from being a Teddy Roosevelt Republican in 2000 to a Dwight Eisenhower Republican in 2008. Eisenhower’s prudent leadership certainly looks attractive as an alternative to recklessness. But the thinking underlying McCain’s approach to the world looks far more like George W. Bush’s than Ike’s. Democrats won’t lay a glove on McCain’s foreign policy unless they’re willing to take what he says seriously and challenge him on where his ideas would lead us.

E.J. Dionne’s e-mail address is postchat(at)aol.com.

© 2008, Washington Post Writers Group

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