John McCain has had to run right hard to capture the Republican nomination. Now that he has it, his proverbial run back to the center has been blocked by the ongoing imperative to prove his conservative bona fides to the Republican base, where attitudes toward him run from mistrust to loathing.
Nonetheless, in an unusual and rather creative speech delivered in the Ohio heartland (Columbus) today, McCain began the long walk back, rhetorically, if not substantively, toward addressing all Americans.
A medieval version of the Big Rock Candy Mountain was "The Land of Cocayne," a place of total wish fulfillment. This speech looked forward to 2013 to lay out a Land of McCain fantasy - an America where wars are winding down and troops are mainly out of harm's way, prosperity has popped up round the taxcut corner, healthcare is something like universal, "hyperpartisanship" is under control, and the executive branch is back in balance with the other two.
Leave aside for the moment the sketchiness and incoherence of the policies proposed to get us there: unregulated healthcare plans riddled with coverage limitations and exclusions; enormous taxcuts with no meaningful spending cuts to offset them; a stable democracy in Iraq with no roadmap for political progress. The vision, and the rhetoric, sent all kinds of signals meant to reassure.
The dance back to the center was a three-step. McCain in this speech walked back several earlier errors and extreme statements. He found new ways to distance himself from Bush. And he coopted a keynote of Obama's change message: the promise to remake our politics by draining partisan poison.
Let's look first at the walk-backs. The most noted was a vision of most troops withdrawn from Iraq, because
The Iraq War has been won. Iraq is a functioning democracy, although still suffering from the lingering effects of decades of tyranny and centuries of sectarian tension. Violence still occurs, but it is spasmodic and much reduced. Civil war has been prevented; militias disbanded; the Iraqi Security Force is professional and competent; al Qaeda in Iraq has been defeated; and the Government of Iraq is capable of imposing its authority in every province of Iraq and defending the integrity of its borders. The United States maintains a military presence there, but a much smaller one, and it does not play a direct combat role.There's been much talk that McCain here has in some way committed to a timetable. He hasn't. He's just stated a fantasy. There is no discussion of how we get to this Iraqi Land of McCain. His endgame is orders of magnitude more ambitious than Obama's, who last month pressed Admiral Mullen whether we could get this far:
If, on the other hand, our criteria is a messy, sloppy status quo but there's not, you know, huge outbreaks of violence, there's still corruption, but the country is struggling along, but it's not a threat to its neighbors and it's not an Al Qaida base, that seems to me an achievable goal within a measurable timeframe.Nonetheless, if four years from now Iraq is not quite a model member of McCain's League of Democracies, and if we still have 100,000 troops there, he will not have broken any promises -- just failed to fulfill a wish.
On the job loss front, McCain completed a sentence that left him hanging in Michigan early this year, where Romney beat him by playing Santa to his Scrooge. Then, in January, he bravely told the state's blue collar workers their jobs were gone for good. Then as now, he advocated increased and more flexible job training for displaced workers, but he wasn't very specific about the result of such training. Now, he envisions successful execution of a sheaf of retraining programs that are helping millions of workers who have lost a job that won't come back find a new one that won't go away.
On health insurance, Elizabeth Edwards effectively hammered McCain for proposing a system under which neither she nor he would be able to buy insurance, since both have pre-existing conditions. She's pushed him to slap on the band-aid of bare-bones government-sponsored insurance-of-last-resort options, enabling to envision a 2013 in which
The federal government and states have cooperated in establishing backstop insurance pools that provide coverage to people hard pressed to find insurance elsewhere because of pre-existing illness.Finally, McCain recently took heat for promising to appoint judges so dedicated to "judicial restraint" that they essentially rubber-stamp almost any law passed by elected officials. Excoriating judges who "issue rulings on policy questions that should be decided democratically," he seemed to leave no room for judges to declare laws unconstitutional. In today's 2013 dream vision, however, he restores a measure of balance, at least rhetorically:
Scores of judges have been confirmed to the federal district and appellate courts, including the U.S. Supreme Court, who understand that they were not sent there to write our laws but to enforce them and make sure they are consistent with the Constitution.Step Two in the centrist three-step was to continue a theme McCain has worked periodically: I'm not Bush. This speech distanced McCain in important ways from Bush's attempts on various fronts to make Presidential power absolute:
The powers of the presidency are rightly checked by the other branches of government, and I will not attempt to acquire powers our founders saw fit to grant Congress. I will exercise my veto if I believe legislation passed by Congress is not in the nation's best interests, but I will not subvert the purpose of legislation I have signed by making statements that indicate I will enforce only the parts of it I like.In softer and more stylistic ways, McCain promised a humbler, more restrained Presidency - more transparent, more deferential to the legislative branch, more bipartisan:
If I am elected President, I will work with anyone who sincerely wants to get this country moving again. I will listen to any idea that is offered in good faith and intended to help solve our problems, not make them worse. I will seek the counsel of members of Congress from both parties in forming government policy before I ask them to support it. I will ask Democrats to serve in my administration. My administration will set a new standard for transparency and accountability. I will hold weekly press conferences. I will regularly brief the American people on the progress our policies have made and the setbacks we have encountered. When we make errors, I will confess them readily, and explain what we intend to do to correct them. I will ask Congress to grant me the privilege of coming before both houses to take questions, and address criticism, much the same as the Prime Minister of Great Britain appears regularly before the House of Commons.Notably, however, McCain did not make any promises to end torture or restore habeas.
Finally, while indicating that in some ways he will turn the page on Bush, McCain cast himself in another sense as a kind of Obama lite - promising to change the political process and political culture:
The Land of McCain dream vision sets a nearly impossible standard of achievement that will doubtless come back to haunt McCain if he is elected. It's a strange strategy, to offer a vision that at once avoids hard promises and sets wistful expectations.
For all the problems we face, if you ask Americans what frustrates them most about Washington, they will tell you they don't think we're capable of serving the public interest before our personal and partisan ambitions; that we fight for ourselves and not for them. Americans are sick of it, and they have every right to be. They are sick of the politics of selfishness, stalemate and delay. They despair when every election -- no matter who wins -- always seems to produce four more years of unkept promises and a government that is just a battleground for the next election. Their patience is at an end for politicians who value ambition over principle, and for partisanship that is less a contest of ide as than an uncivil brawl over the spoils of power. They want to change not only the policies and institutions that have failed the American people, but the political culture that produced them. They want to move this country forward and stake our claim on this century as we did in the last. And they want their government to care more about them than preserving the privileges of the powerful.