10/09/2008 10:30 am ET | Updated May 25, 2011

Plans Versus Platitudes

Government reform issues have emerged as unlikely hotspots in this presidential campaign. Earmarks, the influence of lobbyists, governmental transparency, campaign finance - all topics typically of interest only to incorrigible policy wonks - are now the subject of dueling ads and intense media scrutiny. I therefore decided to take a close look at Obama and McCain's government reform platforms, in order both to discern their content and to see what they might tell us about each man's candidacy.

At first glance, there are striking similarities between the two platforms. Obama wants to "shine the light on Washington lobbying" while McCain promises "greater transparency regarding the official activities of lobbyists." Similarly, Obama laments that "wasteful spending is out of control," thanks in part to rampant earmarks, while McCain complains about the "willful setting aside of taxpayer dollars for the pet projects of special interests."

Both candidates also have strong records on government reform issues. Obama's signature accomplishment in the Senate is the sweeping ethics bill he introduced in early 2007. Back in Illinois, Obama helped pass the strictest campaign finance law in the state's history in 1998. As for McCain, he is one of the principal authors of the 2002 Bipartisan Campaign Reform Act - a law often referred to as "McCain-Feingold." And he has fought earmarks throughout his career.

But there are crucial differences between the candidates as well - for example, the extent to which they are now running on their government reform records. Obama gave a major speech in June, entitled "Taking Our Government Back," and trumpets the laws he helped pass in Illinois and the Senate as examples of the post-partisan, consensus-building approach he would bring to the presidency. McCain, on the other hand, often appears to wish that "McCain-Feingold" had been just "Feingold." He almost never mentions campaign finance reform these days, and the Supreme Court justices he says he admires most all voted to strike down his statute.

McCain's platform (like his debate appearances) also reveals a strange preoccupation with earmarks. McCain rails against "pork barrel politics" and "channeling taxpayer dollars for pet projects," but has next to nothing to say about the 99.5% of the federal budget that is not devoted to earmarks. Obama's platform strikes a much better balance on wasteful spending. Yes, it is important to "shed light on all earmarks by disclosing the name of the legislator who asked for each earmark," but it is also vital to curb lobbying by federal contractors, to expose special interest tax breaks, and to end no-bid contracts. McCain's position on these issues is - silence.

That silence points to an even more fundamental difference between the candidates' government reform platforms: Obama's brims with specifics, while McCain's offers little but gauzy generalities. Obama divides government reform into four subcategories - lobbying; contracts, tax breaks, and earmarks; citizen involvement; and special interest influence - and presents more than a dozen specific policy proposals under these headings. He makes clear why each proposal is necessary and how it would be enacted. McCain, on the other hand, puts forward a set of vague slogans: "Seal the Pork Barrel," "Stop the Revolving Door and Restore Ethics," and "Democracy is Not for Sale." His focus is on past legislative battles rather than concrete plans for the future. On not only wasteful spending but also ethics monitoring, White House and agency transparency, presidential records, and political appointments, McCain has nothing to contribute to the conversation.

Government reform is thus a microcosm of the campaign as a whole. As in many other areas, McCain has distanced himself from positions he used to espouse. His fixation on earmarks is not unlike his obsession with the surge at the expense of all other foreign policy concerns. And, as with health care, taxes, and the financial crisis, it is ironically Obama - the supposed "celebrity" candidate - who supplies specific after specific on government reform, while the old Senate warhorse produces nothing but vapid bromides.