Monday, March 31, 2008

Something Else?

William Kristol comes to the breathtaking conclusion that John McCain will have to run on something other than his biography.

The McCain campaign’s first general election ad, released Friday, includes moving footage of him as a prisoner of war. What was Democratic Chairman Howard Dean’s reaction? “While we honor McCain’s military service, the fact is Americans want a real leader who offers real solutions, not a blatant opportunist who doesn’t understand the economy and is promising to keep our troops in Iraq for 100 years.”

Most Americans want to be told we can leave Iraq sooner rather than later. McCain has chosen instead to tell Americans the hard and unpopular truths that we’ll be there for a while, and that there’s no sacrifice-free path to defeating our enemies and securing a lasting peace. This is “blatant opportunism”?

The McCain ad must have alarmed Dean because McCain’s biography is so much more impressive than Hillary Clinton’s or Barack Obama’s. McCain will spend this week trying to reinforce his biographical advantage, embarking on a “Service to America” tour to places associated with his own, and his family’s, service to the country — from McCain Field (named for his grandfather) near Meridian, Miss., to Annapolis, to two of his stateside Navy postings in Florida.

This is a perfectly reasonable way for McCain to spend time while most of the country enjoys the Democrats’ rollicking demolition derby.

But here’s something for the McCain campaign to remember: Democracies don’t always elect the man who has done the most for his country.

That last line really resonates, especially after the last seven-plus years.

One can lament this “progress” of modern democratic politics, away from rewarding real merit based on past achievement, toward a present-oriented shallowness and a future-oriented wishfulness. One can regret that in our day, historical memory is so short, respect for past accomplishments is so thin, and gratitude for service rendered is so lacking.

But our ingratitude may be the flip side of a healthy hardheadedness, and our focus on the present the byproduct of a sensible pragmatism. When we elect a president, we’re not giving a lifetime achievement award. We’re choosing someone to govern for the next four years. The qualities of a young military hero may not be those of a successful president.

McCain knows this. As an elected official, he’s never rested on his P.O.W. laurels, remarkable though they are. He’s been a major player in the Senate — in foreign policy and military matters, and as a successful sponsor of (sometimes misguided) domestic reform legislation.

As a presidential candidate, McCain is running, as one would expect, a substantive foreign policy campaign, as shown by his fine speech last week before the Los Angeles World Affairs Council. But with recession on the horizon, three-quarters of the American public thinking the country’s on the wrong track, and the president and Congress at historically low approval levels — shouldn’t we be seeing more of McCain the domestic reformer?

In other words, shouldn’t Mr. McCain be telling us how he’s going to fix everything that the Republicans screwed up since they’ve been in charge? So far he’s done squat except to say that people who got sub-prime loans shouldn’t have gotten them in the first place.

Mr. Kristol can put on the all the brave fronts and bluster that he likes, and he can make his jabs and japes at the Democrats for their on-going primaries, conveniently forgetting that right-wing stalwarts like Rush Limbaugh and Ann Coulter were calling for the exile of John McCain before he became the Great Inevitable. Referring to the Democrats primary as a demolition derby shows that Mr. Kristol is capable of transference, although he may not appreciate the irony.

As Obama and Clinton go at it over the next couple of months, McCain can ignore the Democrats and set forth his own policy agenda. His focus on substance could provide a nice contrast to their political bickering. And his policies, combining conservative principles with reformist energy, could contrast well with their stale liberal orthodoxy. Then Howard Dean will really be sputtering.

If Mr. Kristol thinks that what either Sen. Clinton or Sen. Obama is offering is “stale liberal orthodoxy,” — in spite of the fact that neither candidate or their positions are stale or orthodox (and there are a lot of people who don’t think they’re sufficiently liberal) — then what does John McCain offer? The same “compassionate conservative” principles we’ve been getting for the past eight years, only now it’s coming from him, not Bush?