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What Happened to McCain the Reformer?

06/21/2008 05:12 am ET | Updated May 25, 2011

Why is John McCain running such a fumbling, cautious, and message-free campaign when the message is right at his fingertips?

If I were McCain, upon sealing up the nomination I would have aggressively focused my campaign around domestic issues, building on my brand as a government reformer. Even if you don't care much about the details of, say, tax or fiscal policy, reform in the broadest sense clearly has a potent political appeal this year. From national security to environmental protection, the government has been badly misused by the Bush administration. Thanks to Iraq and Katrina, to many it appears all but broken. Moreover, even if you could erase the disasters of the past eight years, the government simply isn't set up to handle many of the problems engulfing us now. So reforms are not just politically appealing, but necessary.

McCain has credibility in this area -- he fought for campaign finance reform against his party and won. He recognizes the pernicious effect Washington's "permanent class" of lobbyists and trade organizations have on legislation and the executive branch. He really cares about these things too, for instance repeatedly making a point of stressing his personal horror at the big government breakdown in New Orleans. So all of this fits together very naturally for him. Even his strong advocacy for the surge in Iraq, seen in this context, was a reformer's move in the face of massive blundering. It was an tactical innovation that got things working right -- and showed they could work (work militarily, that is, as opposed to working politically or strategically -- but that's another argument).

The point is, if you're John McCain it shouldn't be hard to come up with a simple, compelling message that is a credible alternative to Obama's. Yet it's not happening.

Instead, McCain seems to be betting the farm on his politically inadvisable "stay in Iraq" policy, while in the domestic arena he has become an ever-more conventional Republican in a year when Republicanism is clearly on the outs. And he's constantly haranguing the media and Democrats for accurately reporting his own, inconvenient statements. Today, for example, he's pushing back against the idea he supports "privatization" of Social Security. Set aside the mind-numbing semantic debate. Why does McCain put himself in this position of supporting an idea that George W. Bush pushed so aggressively, and which was an utter political flop, and which was never a serious policy solution to begin with? Because he's bought the standard suite of Republican policy positions, most of which have already been tested in the political-electoral marketplace and failed. This may be the easiest way to get a position paper up on your website, but it actually makes the case against McCain: he doesn't know what the hell he's going to do if he wins.

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