The Limits of McCainism

Patrick Ruffini on the debate:

To me one thing stood out. John McCain's maverickness is not gone. McCain doesn't need to return to his old maverick self.  If anything, McCain's maverickness is the problem.

I noticed this whenever someone would ask about the economy. McCain would launch into a tirade against the greedy special interests on Wall Street. Obama would tend to lead with how it affected the voter. Two very different reactions. And I can't help but think that Obama's response connected better.

McCain has long tried to appropriate the populist, muckraking instincts of TR and the progressive Republicans. But there's a reason why these tactics haven't worked since, well, TR and the progressive Republicans.

Yes, voters may say they are mad about corporate pay, and Wall Street, and a do-nothing, self-aggrandizing Congress. But they are ultimately looking out for #1. The most relevant questions are and have always been: what are you going to do my taxes? my health care? my job?

This is why populism ultimately has such weak appeal. Sticking it to corporate CEOs and greedy politicians doesn't in and of itself put food on the table.

Conservatives have long understood populism as a weakness in liberal economic rhetoric, allowing us to win debates we otherwise would not have won by deploying more grounded, solution-oriented arguments (e.g. populist rants against trade and greedy CEOs who outsource vs. the direct benefits to the consumer of cheaper goods and services). But now this populist rhetoric is being visited on our own house.

In a time of crisis, people especially want to know what this means to them. And in this light, I can't help but think that John McCain's rush to indict distant bogeymen and his Senatese reminiscences about fighting the good fight against the bums in Washington fell a little flat.

I would quibble with what I think is Ruffini's somewhat narrow definition of populism, but overall he's right. This has always, always been a problem for McCain: His strongest instinct, when confronted with any domestic-policy problem, is to find a black hat to pin the blame on and then punish them for it, rather than looking for the smartest possible solution. And in a crisis that nobody really understands, and where the blame for what's happened runs through Main Street as well as Wall Street and Washington, McCain's usual "punish the bad guys" message just doesn't seem like what voters want to hear.