The main reason for John McCain's post-convention surge can be summed up in one word: reform. As the Washington Post's Dan Balz said this week: "McCain has, for now, been able to redefine his candidacy -- more reform, less Bush 3. Can that last?"
In his acceptance speech, McCain said he "had the scars to prove it," a reference to his reform battles that were unpopluar with the base of his own party -- campaign finance reform, immigration reform, earmark reform.
The Obama campaign has tried to chip away at McCain's image as a refomer by running TV spots portraying him as a virtual Bush clone. Ultimately, however, that alone will fall short as a winning strategy because enough swing voters sense that Mc Cain is not Bush, nor is he a conventional party man. Despite changing some of his positions to appeal to the GOP base, McCain has enough of a history as a maverick reformer to make the label work for him.
Obama's challenge is to redefine himself as the best reformer in the race, not merely as a candidate of a change. In a recent Wall Street Journal story, a 28 year old blue collar worker said, "I believe in change, too. But what kind of change is Obama talking about?" The problem with the word "change" is that it's soft and vague -- and that's how too many blue collar and undecided voters perceive Obama. But while there is no "change tradition" in American politics, there is a powerful reform tradition. As Mark Twain observed: "The difference between the almost right word and the right word is really a large matter -- it's the difference between lightning bug and lightning."
As the presidential race heads into the homestretch, Obama must sharpen his image by identifying himself with the successful American reform tradition, which has both Republican and Democratic champions. He was on the right track a year ago when he gave a speech in Manchester, New Hampshire praising the crusading reformers of the Progressive Era, especially Teddy Roosevelt for taking on wealthy, entrenched interests of his own Republian Party. "Eventually," Obama said, "leaders committed to reform began to speak out all across America, demanding a new kind of politics that would give government back to the people." It was these reformers, Obama noted, who challenged " a vast system...[that] kept power in the hands of the few while workers...found it harder and harder to earn a decent wage, or work in a safe environment or get a day off once in a while." With very little editing, Obama could deliver the same message today to knowing nods in every swing state.
The reform tradition is especially powerful because it is quintessentially American. Tocqueville saw this clearly when he wrote: "The great privilege of the Americans is not that they are more enlightened than other people, but that they have the capacity to correct mistakes that are committed from time to time." When Obama spoke about the Progressive Era reformers and their determination to fight the excesses and corruption of the Gilded Age, he spoke, as they did, with passion and moral clarity. That is the great American reformer's voice he needs between now and November 4th.