Jewish World Review Feb. 7, 2000/ 1 Adar I, 5760
http://www.jewishworldreview.com -- IN 1968, EUGENE MCCARTHY shocked the incumbent in New Hampshire by tapping into war weariness. In 1992, Pat Buchanan shocked the incumbent in New Hampshire by tapping into economic anxiety. In 2000, John McCain shocked everyone in New Hampshire by figuring out, as no other challenger has, how to run an opposition campaign in a golden age. (And, unlike McCarthy and Buchanan, McCain actually won the vote, by a landslide no less.)
It seems an insoluble problem. How do you run against an incumbent vice president at a time of unprecedented prosperity and tranquility?
Campaign for lower unemployment? It can't go any lower. On inflation? There isn't any. Deficits? We've got a surplus. Economic growth? The economy is expanding so fast the Fed has to slow it down.
The country is secure abroad. And even the perennial indices of social pathology are in decline. Welfare rolls have been cut in half, as has crime in many of our major cities.
The basic question of the 2000 campaign: Why change in times this good? George W. Bush is not sure. In fact, he is not even sure why he's running. On Tuesday night, he said he is in the race because he wants to "teach our children to read and write" and "teach them right from wrong." Well, yes.
He has tried to position himself as the sensible centrist, launching sensible small-bore right-of-center critiques of left-of-center Democratic policies. He suggests that with his clean record, he would bridge the Clinton-Gore integrity gap.
As New Hampshire has shown, that does not exactly set the electorate on fire.
John McCain shrewdly decided that one does not win with programmatic attacks on an administration that has helped bring the country to an unprecedented moment of peace and prosperity. He decided to attack not policies but the basic process of government itself. He has pledged to throw the money-changers out of the temple.
This is meta-politics: not programmatic but systemic change. And the change involves not such crass, prosaic reform as, say, a flat tax but the lofty (and chimerical, but that's another matter) pledge to cleanse politics of corruption by money.
Americans may not care much, as the polls show, about campaign finance reform. But they care about what it stands for. They care about the idea. And in McCain's case, the idea is integrity.
Moreover, this "crusade" dovetails perfectly with the second part of his appeal: He'll not just cleanse the institution of government; he'll personally replace the embodiment of its present decadence, Bill Clinton.
McCain's own biography is, of course, a standing rebuke to the feckless, narcissistic president. But McCain is eschewing subtlety. He does not just pledge to speak the truth. He came out swinging on the night of his New Hampshire triumph, denouncing the "truth-twisting politics of Bill Clinton and Al Gore."
Whether, with little money, organization or establishment support, McCain can sustain his insurgency is problematic. But he has quite brilliantly intuited how one deposes a government during a golden age.
Now, this is not boilerplate. It is code, and heavily laden. Nor, as it has been interpreted, is it just about tactics, getting down, throwing mud, going "negative." It represents a strategy, one might even say a vision. "Fight": to maintain the status quo against all new forces--the globalizers, deregulators, reformers and religious types--who would in any way jeopardize the gains of his chosen constituencies.
Kevin Phillips once dubbed this philosophy "reactionary liberalism." Gore is its champion. He fights to preserve: abortion (feminists) against the moralizers, affirmative action (minorities) against the meritocrats, Medicare and Social Security against the privatizers, Medicaid against the slightest hint of reform (such as Bill Bradley's) and, of course, union power against any and all.
As he showed by his savaging of Bradley in the Iowa debates, it's not pretty. But it works. Should he succeed, and should McCain draw to an inside straight and win the Republican nomination, the general election would come down to a classic, even elegant confrontation: reactionary liberalism vs. a progressive conservatism.
No wonder the only people more gleeful than John McCain on Tuesday
night were the network anchors. Times of plenty are normally times when
politics are killed by contentment or ruled by the tyranny of small
differences. This golden age, however, just keeps on giving. Now it holds
out the possibility of yet another gift: a great presidential
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