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Previously in Politics & Prose:

The Electorate Bobby Built (January 26, 2000)
A new biography paints Robert F. Kennedy as a Machiavellian monster. How then, Christopher Caldwell asks, did he get to be a liberal icon?

Sidewalk Economics (January 26, 2000)
Mitchell Duneier's Sidewalk, a new study of street vendors on Manhattan's Sixth Avenue, turns assumptions about race, class, and social values upside down. Charles Davis reviews.

McCain and the "Bloody Chasm" (December 30, 1999)
Christopher Caldwell explains why the liberal press loves John McCain.

A New Deal for the New Economy (December 8, 1999)
Is this the best economy in years? It depends on whom you ask, Jack Beatty argues, and where in the world they live.

Is W. Inevitable? (November 17, 1999)
It looks like George W. Bush has the nomination in the bag. Christopher Caldwell offers a scenario of how Bush could become a loser.

More Politics & Prose in Atlantic Unbound.


Join the conversation in the Politics & Society conference of Post & Riposte.

Reform Politics! (Then What?)

Is John McCain advocating reform for reform's sake, or does he have a pressing agenda?

by Jack Beatty

February 16, 2000

John McCain wants to reform politics, but to what end? What does he want to do with government when it's no longer under the sway of "the special interests" he tilts against in every speech (without naming them or identifying their nefarious fingerprints on a particular bill)? McCain is running on more than his biography, but his reform agenda is long on process and short on policy.

In a recent speech before a hall full of South Carolinians -- who were moved listening to a man who braved captivity and torture for love of country -- McCain sketched in his platform. He wants to reform the military, and this means making it a more attractive career for young men and women (his biggest applause line came when he promised that "under a McCain Administration no member of the military will be on Food Stamps"). He wants to reform education, for which campaign-finance reform is a prerequisite -- only after the dreaded teacher's unions no longer fund the Democratic Party, he says, will it be possible to implement public/private school choice, his remedy for failing schools. McCain wants to privatize a portion of Social Security, to resolve the funding crisis facing it after 2010 or so, and to dedicate much of the surplus to reducing the national debt.

But despite these stump-speech specifics McCain is notably ill at ease answering questions about domestic policy, The New York Times reports, and when pressed resorts to Perot-like pledges that, once elected, he will gather "the best minds in America" to help him decide what to do.

McCain, basically, is a process politician, a Mugwump who will make government more efficient and less wasteful -- not cut its size, nor ask it to do new things. The goal of McCainism is, Mugwump-like, to make politics and government respectable to young people whose political alienation is a civic danger. But young people care about more than process, the Mugwump's fetish. They want a government that delivers, that makes a difference in their lives, that hinders the hindrances, to use an old formulation of the credo of liberalism, that stand between them and their hopes.

Writing in The Weekly Standard, William Kristol and David Brooks find wider purpose in McCain's reform crusade, seeing it as "part of a more comprehensive ambition to reinvigorate citizenship." While George W. Bush appeals to self-interest with his call for deep tax cuts, McCain appeals to public-spiritedness in summoning young Americans to embrace causes bigger than themselves. Kristol and Brooks summarize McCain's vision this way:

We should think of ourselves as citizens, not merely as consumers; we should serve the public good, not merely private interest; we should be represented in Washington as Americans, not merely as members of interest groups and taxpayers.... His brand of conservatism rejects the notion that the highest end of government is to leave us alone.
It is difficult to square this powerful Periclean rhetoric with McCain's embrace of Newt Gingrich's Contract With America, a libertarian manifesto. Brooks and Kristol make McCain sound like the new John F. Kennedy, who in 1960 campaigned on sacrifice and "national greatness," an ideal Kristol wants the GOP to brand. As a fifteen-year-old in 1960, I was stirred by JFK's heroic vision of a country that would redeem the world for liberty, but that hubristic idealism, I now see, led directly to Vietnam, where thousands of young Americans got a bellyful of sacrifice. In this connection it's worth remembering that McCain advocated the use of U.S. ground troops to drive Serb forces out of Kosovo. Is this the stuff of which "national greatness" is made -- ground troop interventions in regions where no vital U.S. interests are at stake? I'd rather a government that saw national greatness in reducing child poverty and expanding social insurance to cover long-term nursing-home care for seniors -- prosaically material ends, no doubt, "the bread and tea of life," in Dr. Johnson's phrase, but vital props of the independence that supports citizenship. If, however, I had to choose between McCain-style national greatness and the hoary GOP alternative, I'd prefer the latter -- a government that would "leave us alone."


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More on politics and society in Atlantic Unbound and The Atlantic Monthly.


Jack Beatty is a senior editor at The Atlantic Monthly and the author of The World According to Peter Drucker (1997) and The Rascal King: The Life and Times of James Michael Curley (1992).

Copyright © 2000 by The Atlantic Monthly Company.
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