Ballot Box

New Patriotic Challenger

SIMI VALLEY, Calif.–On the plane from Washington to a breakfast speech in Grand Rapids, Mich., this morning, John McCain got a brief briefing on local conditions. John Weaver, his national political director, alerted him that the audience waiting inside the aircraft hangar might include Betsy DeVos, the chairman of the state party, who happens to be married to the head of the Amway Corp., and who also happens to be a committed foe of campaign finance reform. “Then I’ll just have to emphasize campaign finance reform,” McCain replied, grinning mischievously. He then recalled a previous meeting when he brought his signature issue up in Michigan, doing an impression of DeVos’ reaction in a small meeting. McCain clenched his teeth, screwed up his face, and snarled, “GRRRRRRR.”

McCain didn’t spot Ms. DeVos at the breakfast, but he dwelt on campaign finance reform anyhow–he always does. Running on this issue as a Republican may be the most contrarian notion in his delightfully contrarian campaign. It’s not clear that many voters outside of reform-minded states like Minnesota have ever made up their minds about whom to vote for on the basis of this issue. What is certain–or at least was until his campaign–is that Republicans, who continue to enjoy a substantial advantage in raising money under the current system, see little appeal in McCain’s ideas about how to reform it.

McCain thinks he can elevate the issue–and his presidential candidacy–by broadening the issue beyond its numbing technicalities. He hopes to link it to the apathy young people feel about politics and to a larger sense of national purpose. McCain thinks the fact that special interest money dominates the electoral system is a big part of the reason that a majority of 18-to-26-year-olds don’t register and don’t vote. He sees political corruption not just as an Augean stable to be cleansed, but as a positive issue that can serve to re-engage the disaffected electorate. “Restoring honesty to our political system is the gateway through which all other political reforms must pass,” he said here in a speech at the Reagan Library, to sustained applause and a loud cry of “Amen” from a man in a skirt and sneakers who later identified himself as the leader of “Evangelical Christian Democrats for McCain.”

The historical role model cited by George W. Bush’s adviser Karl Rove is Mark Hanna. Hanna elected William McKinley president in 1896 by marshalling the wealth of the robber barons on his behalf. The exemplar for McCain is Teddy Roosevelt, the reformer who became president after McKinley was assassinated in 1901. When asked by a high-school student in Grand Rapids who he thought of as the greatest American, living or dead, McCain (who was stopping in Michigan en route to the Reagan Library) cited Reagan as his living example and TR, along with Lincoln, as the dead one.

McCain mentions Teddy Roosevelt frequently. He told me on the plane–a plush Citation borrowed from Rupert Murdoch–that he has been reading TR’s speeches and finding them relevant to his campaign in a number of ways. One way is as a guide to political reform. Teddy Roosevelt, he says, understood that in reform, the perfect was the enemy of the good. McCain, who recently agreed to drop everything but a ban on soft money from his eponymous campaign reform bill, which is supposed to come up for another Senate vote soon, agrees. He says that after a decade, shrewd operators will find the loopholes in any finance reform bill. Cleaning up the system thus has to be a periodic, and inevitably incomplete, process. He hopes that McCain-Feingold will reduce the power of special interest money in politics, not eliminate it, because eliminating it is impossible. He has focused on soft money–unregulated large contributions to the parties–because he thinks that they are the single biggest problem, just as corporate contributions were when Roosevelt got them banned in 1907.

McCain sees other points of commonality with TR as well. He frequently points out Roosevelt’s status as the Republican father of conservation–a topic he plans to emphasize at an appearance in Seattle tomorrow morning. This should be a fruitful theme for McCain, because there is really no other claimant to Roosevelt’s environmental legacy in the GOP. Though George W. Bush fits the moderate Republican profile in other respects, Bush’s anti-regulatory, pro-business views steer him clear of the Sierra Club.

The most important link to Teddy Roosevelt, however, isn’t any single issue. It’s the way McCain aspires to draw political reform, environmentalism, an internationalist foreign policy, and more together in a call for renewed civic engagement. Roosevelt’s vision was summed up in the phrase “The New Nationalism.” McCain’s somewhat ungainly slogan, “The New Patriotic Challenge,” owes a debt to this. Sometimes McCain defines his patriotic challenge in terms of political reform, as he did here at the Reagan Library, where he called it “a fight against the pervasive cynicism that is debilitating our democracy, that cheapens our public debates, that threatens our public institutions, our culture and, ultimately, our private happiness.” Other times, he casts it as an “ask not” call to public service. In Grand Rapids, McCain says he wrote his new book in the hope that “young people might pick it up and read it and realize the great virtue in committing themselves to America’s cause.” In his view, this includes all kinds of public service. “It doesn’t have to be military,” he says. “It can be in a mental hospital or the National Forest Service or the Peace Corps.”

McCain has not yet managed to communicate his charisma in public, or to the young, in anything like the way John F. Kennedy once did. But his “new patriotic challenge” seems to strike a chord nonetheless. When McCain calls upon the rest of us to serve, he asks from a position of utter credibility, based on what he sacrificed in serving. This is something that is not true for any of the other candidates.