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McCain Should Run a Reform Campaign

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In many ways, the long Democratic presidential nominating process has hurt John McCain by marginalizing him in favor of covering the Democratic horse race. In other ways, it’s helped McCain. He’s pretty much been unnoticed as he’s stumbled out of the gate and clopped about the nation in search of a coherent theme for his campaign. Basically, he’s kinda sorta running an honor and duty campaign. But, as The Weekly Standard points out, that’s not good enough.

[T]he 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 Weekly Standard has a suggestion with which I completely agree. McCain needs to run a “reform” campaign that utilizes his fiercely independent streak to its greatest advantage. After all, McCain has a history of engaging in reform politics AND reform is what we need much more than some abstract “change.” Many of the institutions we created in the 20th Century are in need of a serious rethinking and reconfiguration. From regulatory agencies like the FAA and FDA to our national intelligence apparatus to our emergency response systems to our tax codes and entitlement programs, problems abound. We need reform.

Barack Obama is already saying the old ways are not the best ways. But he seems mainly focused on our partisan political divides and not our increasingly out-of-date governmental programs and agencies. In fact, many of Barack Obama’s plans rely on an expansion of those very same programs and agencies. For Obama, change doesn’t typically mean transforming the system, it means adding more layers to the system. Yes, Obama wants to fix our problems, but his big government plans could exacerbate the dysfunctions already inherent in our systems.

This is where a McCain reform campaign could trump an Obama change campaign. I’ll let TWS lay it out:

The overarching lesson of our failing institutions is not that government has failed to reach far enough into American society, but that life in the 21st century is more complex and less predictable than our 20th-century institutions can readily fathom. The answer is not to expand government so it can rescue people from themselves–which is the underlying premise behind just about every plank of Hillary Clinton’s and Barack Obama’s platforms–but to make the institutions dynamic and flexible enough to advance the causes of economic growth, cultural vitality, and national security.

Exactly. We don’t need to be saved from ourselves. We need governmental institutions that allow us to make the most of this nation’s bountiful opportunities. We need modernized programs and agencies that provide us resources to help us help ourselves and then get out of our way.

The Weekly Standard offers a lot of suggestions for a conservative reform movement. I won’t enumerate them but they’re all based on giving individual Americans more individual power. This is not about stripping Americans of their needed safety nets, this is about reforming the whole idea of safety nets and how the government can best serve us in the 21st century.

McCain has never been the type of blind conservative who views all government as bad government. As such, he is uniquely positioned to charge forward with a real and sustentative reform movement that, if well developed and well articulated, might not only have more appeal than Obama’s change movement but could make Obama’s plans seem old-fashioned and flimsy.

Of course, the key here is “well developed and well articulated.” McCain has yet to show a great aptitude for fusing those two aspects. Maybe if he embraces reform as his campaign narrative, he’ll stop stumbling around and start leading this race.