The Magazine

A Theme for McCain's Pudding

Here's how to tie together the campaign's assortment of ideas: a reform agenda for the 21st century.

May 26, 2008, Vol. 13, No. 35 • By YUVAL LEVIN
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In recent weeks, while the penultimate chapter of the Democratic nomination race has monopolized our attention, John McCain has engaged in a series of auditions of general election themes for his campaign. In early April, he set out on a "Service to America Tour," highlighting key points of his biography. Two weeks later, he launched his "Time for Action Tour," which focused on some of the country's most economically depressed regions, and which should by no means be confused with the "Call to Action Tour" that followed and focused on McCain's health care plans. Then last week in Ohio, McCain outlined key elements of his agenda in a speech organized around a description of America in 2013--after his first term. Speaking of the future in the past tense, he sought to describe himself as an ambitious doer.

All of these allowed McCain to raise important issues and to offer some interesting ideas. The health care tour, in particular, yielded a speech (delivered in Tampa, Florida, on April 29) that is to date the best articulation of the conservative vision of health care from a Republican politician. What has not emerged is a coherent campaign narrative: a theme that unites McCain's proposals, his persona, his assessment of the state of the nation today, and the essence of what he plans to offer the voter in November. Indeed, this absence of an organizing principle was painfully evident in his "America in 2013" speech, which was the very model of a themeless pudding.

The titles and the presentation of these assorted events suggest the McCain campaign is looking to ground its messages in duty, honor, and ability, presenting the candidate as a man who has always been ready to step up and act when his country needed him. This was roughly the approach of the Dole campaign in 1996 and (in a rather different way) of the Kerry campaign in 2004, and in both cases it failed to capture the imagination of the electorate. Campaigns need to sell their candidate, to be sure, but successful campaigns usually do so by articulating a candidate's vision of the present moment and the future, and not just his willingness to answer a call. The McCain campaign is currently organized around the candidate's character and persona, and the question is to what governing philosophy McCain's "honor politics" points.

It is of course fairly late in the game to be engaged in basic message development, but McCain's peculiar path to victory in the primaries did not force him to do so earlier. He won, after all, without a base, without much of a strategy, and without an organized campaign apparatus. His various rivals eliminated one another (or, in the case of Giuliani and Thompson, eliminated themselves), and McCain was the man left standing in the end. His defining issue was the war in Iraq, which seems increasingly unlikely to be the issue that defines the general election. The McCain team is therefore in the unusual position of having won the primaries without a clear unifying theme for its candidate's message. The challenge is not to invent a campaign theme from scratch, but to discern and articulate the organizing principle of the candidate's outlook on politics.

McCain himself long ago offered the core of the answer. In announcing his first run for the presidency, in September 1999, McCain declared that if elected he would work to "reform our public institutions to meet the demands of a new day." So far he has not made the vocabulary of reform a key to his second run for the White House. But a comprehensive reform agenda, which framed America's challenge in terms of revitalizing and reimagining its core public institutions, would be a natural fit for McCain, and for the challenges of the day. It would provide him with the overarching theme for the assorted elements of his approach to public policy.

CHANGE AND REFORM

A successful McCain campaign would begin with noting what is wrong with the Democrats' main theme: change. In an election year marked by a vague but pervasive sense of anxiety among voters, there is something ironic about the Democratic mantra. Change, after all, is exactly what Americans have been experiencing over the last several decades: changes in the American and the global economy; changes in social and family structure; changes and advances in the technologies of medicine, communication, transportation, and information processing; changes in just about every facet of our lives. Many have been welcome, but all have brought with them unease, especially as they have outpaced the ability of our large public institutions to adapt. Lurking beneath the individual concerns and anxieties that voters express to pollsters is a broad crisis of confidence, grounded in apprehension about the escalating failures of these institutions, from the intelligence community and giant Wall Street banks, to entitlement programs, the immigration system, and beyond.