Ballot Box

McCain Takes the Plunge

Mount Pleasant, S. C.–The usual insurgent candidate’s strategy, which has not actually worked in 20 years in the GOP, is to score upsets in Iowa and New Hampshire. John McCain has a slightly different idea. Because of his long-standing opposition to ethanol subsidies, he is simply bypassing the Iowa caucuses. Instead, he’s running in New Hampshire and South Carolina, which holds the next primary after New Hampshire.

South Carolina is promising for McCain for two reasons. The first is that it’s a state filled with conservative Republicans–for whom McCain hopes to emerge as the only viable alternative to George W. Bush. The second reason is that it is rich in military retirees and veterans, who regard McCain as one of their own, just as they did Bob Dole in 1996.

Hence the setting for his South Carolina announcement: a podium dressed with black POW-MIA flags, with the carrier USS Yorktown as a backdrop. The ship was once part of the World War II fleet commanded by McCain’s grandfather–a connection noted by McCain. On the deck was an A-4 Skyhawk, the type of plane McCain was flying when he was shot down over Hanoi–an association noted by Larry Grooms, the South Carolina state senator who introduced him. “While some were out dodging the draft, John McCain was volunteering for active service in Vietnam,” Grooms reminded the audience–which was sprinkled with purple- and orange-haired teen-agers as well as vets. Whether the reference was to Clinton or Bush, or both, was unclear.

McCain’s speech was a version of the one he gave yesterday in New Hampshire, culminating in his refrain “I am not afraid.” McCain’s speeches are extremely well written, thanks to his gifted ghost Mark Salter, who helped write his book Faith of My Fathers. They are not terribly well delivered by the candidate, who stumbles more in one speech than Bill Clinton does in a year’s worth of them. But both the prose and the delivery have the appeal of directness and sincerity.

The most interesting thing about today’s announcement was what was left out at the last minute. An earlier version of the prepared speech included a semi-direct attack on George W. Bush’s education proposal. A preliminary draft of his speech, passed out in advance, read: “There are those who would instead propose a larger role for the federal government. One of my opponents wants to allow the Department of Education to cut off money to underprivileged children if those children do not improve their test scores over a three-year period.”

But McCain did not deliver this criticism of Bush. Instead he cut straight to the next paragraph, which draws an implicit distinction instead of an explicit one. “While I applaud the effort to hold schools accountable for the money they receive, I would strongly oppose any program that would give power over the lives of children to a federal bureaucrat.” McCain will certainly attack Bush–he has to. But he may have decided that it makes sense to establish a positive message before going negative on the Republican front-runner.

It’s interesting to compare the two education plans. Where Bush’s plan is a federally directed quasi-voucher scheme, McCain’s is a federally funded voucher experiment that emphasizes local control. McCain’s plan is more honest than Bush’s in some respects. For one thing, McCain is willing to spend new money–$5.4 billion over three years. And he’s explicit about where he’d get it–by cutting corporate welfare, specifically federal subsidies for sugar, oil, and ethanol (suggesting that he’s intending to write off Texas and Hawaii as well as Iowa).

McCain’s vouchers would be worth more than Bush’s–$2,000 vs. $1,500. The problem is that that’s still not enough to determine whether vouchers work. $2,000 would pay tuition only at some Catholic parochial schools. This raises Constitutional questions, but beyond that, it’s not enough to create genuine competitive pressure on bad public schools, which is the point of vouchers–unless you think the goal is to replace public education with private education.

That said, McCain has some great lines about education. “There’s no reason on earth that a good teacher should be paid less than a bad senator,” he says.

And this one, even better: “Some people just aren’t meant to be teachers, and we should help them find another line of work,” he says. This draws wild applause from the school kids at the front of the stage, who may think McCain is promising to fire their teachers.