In the aftermath of the beating the Republicans took in the recent election, John McCain is trying to seize the point on defining the problem and positing solutions, not the least of which, in McCain's mind, is to make him the Republican presidential nominee in 2008.
McCain laid his claim in a couple of speeches given to conservative audiences last Thursday, in which he sketched a program of what he calls common-sense conservatism.
A better moniker would be tough-minded conservatism. McCain is a brave and tough guy. He thinks Republicans and conservatives should be willing to take on tough problems.
McCain has been a useful scold on the gross expansion under Republican rule of earmarking federal spending to the preferred projects of politicians. That, however, is merely emblematic of a larger problem: an unwillingness to restrain spending generally and confront specifically the unsustainability of current entitlements.
In his speech to GOPAC, a training organization for conservative Republican candidates, McCain was scathing in his indictment of the Republican prescription-drug benefit for Medicare, on which many Republicans ran: "We responded to a problem facing some Americans by providing every retired American with a prescription-drug benefit, and adding another trillion dollars to a bankrupt entitlement."
McCain certainly talked tough about entitlement reform: "We have more significant priorities ahead of us than finding new ways to spend money unwisely. . . . By 2045, spending on Social Security, Medicare and Medicaid, along with interest on the national debt, will consume 84 cents out of every federal dollar."
The question is whether McCain, during his presidential bid, will propose a tough solution to this tough entitlement problem. In his GOPAC speech, McCain simply referred to bringing all the parties to the table to hammer out a principled solution.
That's happy talk for getting Democrats to join in the dirty work. Ain't gonna happen. Democrats are clearly going to continue milking the political benefits of denial.
The largest obstacle to McCain's path to the presidency was thought to be reconciliation with social conservatives, who still harbor bruised feelings over a speech McCain gave after losing the South Carolina primary in 2000, attacking certain social conservative leaders.
However, a larger obstacle is now looming: Iraq.
In his speech to the Federalist Society, McCain tried to define, and circumscribe, the message the American people were sending about Iraq in this election: "(T)he American people told us loud and clear last week that they are not happy with the course of this war. Neither am I. But let's be clear: that's the limit of what they told us about Iraq and the war on terrorism."
That's wishful thinking. According to a national exit poll conducted for a media consortium, 55 percent of those voting felt that the United States should withdraw some or all troops from Iraq. The American people may be wrong. But getting out of Iraq was clearly part of the message.
Only 17 percent expressed support for sending in more troops, which is what McCain proposes. However, neither McCain nor anyone else has made a credible case that more American troops will make a material difference. Nothing short of full-fledged American martial law is likely to bring security to the country by force, and that would merely unite the various factions against the U.S. occupation.
The American people clearly believe that the United States has reached the end of what we can usefully do in Iraq. McCain disagrees.
McCain sees the challenge to the United States by militant Islam, and the proper response to it, pretty much the same way President Bush does. McCain doesn't disagree with the Bush doctrine so much as he believes it has been poorly executed.
In the GOPAC speech, McCain even reprised Bush's false choice about the alternatives: "Some on both the left and right argue that our advocacy of democratic values in Iraq and elsewhere is reckless and vain; that freedom only works for wealthy nations and Western cultures."
That's not really the issue. The issue is whether it is in the interests of the United States to be forcefully seeking to change other countries, governments and cultures. According to Bush and McCain, our security requires it.
Another view is that our global pushiness makes us more of a terrorist target and reduces our ability to do the things to isolate and disrupt the terrorists that truly threaten us.
In any event, for those looking for a new approach to protecting the United States against terrorist attack, McCain, at this point, isn't offering one.