McCain's Policy Problem

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Andrew writes that the McCain policy agenda seems "rather muddled and political, rather than the product of a coherent worldview." Noah Millman, meanwhile, makes the obvious but important point that barring a political miracle, the McCain agenda won't matter all that much in domestic politics, since a President McCain will be faced with large Democratic majorities in both houses, and his primary role will be to moderate their agenda rather than advance his own.

I suspect that it's Noah's insight, in part, that explains the muddledness Andrew perceives, though I would describe McCain's domestic-policy line as less muddled than simply implausible. The McCain campaign seems to have decided that the way to deal with the divide between GOP orthodoxy and the mood of the country is to simply be for everything that a supply-sider would be for (extending the Bush tax cuts, cutting the corporate rate, flattening the tax brackets) and for everything a deficit hawk would be for (porkbusting, freezing discretionary spending, entitlement reform) and for everything that a more centrist or reform-minded GOP politician might favor (tax cuts for families, action on global warming, federal dollars for health coverage for the uninsurable), with a few egregious, gas tax-style panders thrown in besides - and then never mind that it doesn't add up financially, because none of it is going to be enacted anyway.

The problem with this approach, as I've argued before, isn't just that McCain will eventually get called on the fact that the numbers don't really add up; it's that "we're for everything a Republican could possibly be for" isn't really much of a domestic-policy narrative for a Presidential campaign, particularly in a recession year when the GOP brand is at rock-bottom, and particularly for a candidate whose whole shtick is predicated on being a straight-talking, orthodoxy-busting maverick. But it's tough to see how a better narrative emerges at this point. The ever-provocative Richelieu suggests McCain needs a Sister Souljah moment with elements within the party, but the campaign seems pretty wedded to an "all things to all (center-right) people" approach instead. And the more policy speeches McCain gives and the more positions he commits himself to, the narrower the window for anything truly surprising or game-changing gets.

Photo by Flickr user MarcN used under a Creative Commons license.