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Jewish World Review Jan. 24, 2000 /17 Shevat, 5760

Ben Wattenberg

Ben Wattenberg
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Don Quixote... not -- WITH McCAIN IN NEW HAMPSHIRE -- Like James Dean in "Rebel Without A Cause," the presidential campaign of Sen. John McCain -- a "Rebel With a Cause" -- focuses on a vehicle. In the movie it's a hot-rod driven by Dean.

On the road with McCain it's the campaign bus, which was originally fitted out to accommodate a touring rock star. The bus is loaded with political press; when McCain is not aboard it is called "Bulls--t One." When McCain sits down in his Captain's Chair, the bus reverts to its official designation, "The Straight Talk Express."

In fact, there is plenty of both as the bus careers across the snowy New Hampshire roads, bringing McCain to half a dozen town meetings over the course of a 15-hour day, as he pursues a dream that is improbable but surely not impossible.

Running for president is hard work and politicians work hard at it. Five or six speeches a day, plus working the phones during downtime, pumps adrenaline by the bucket. But McCain is an Energizer bunny. Between each stop he sits with the press in the back of the bus, schmoozing, pronouncing, pontificating and joking, on a wide variety of matters, almost invariably on the record. He is often irreverent, and sometimes mock-manic, which encourages mild rowdyism on the part of his chroniclers, who love the drill, even as the candidate playfully labels them "communists," "Trotskyites" and "scum."

This is not normally the way the game is played. Clearly, it is a great shtick for the Arizona senator. He is very good at it, he relishes the give and take, and has received extensive and favorable coverage about it, as above.

But the bus also serves as a metaphor for McCain's campaign. He presents himself as a maverick reformer who, if elected, will not play the game in the normal way. His central cause is campaign finance reform, which leads him to rail against "the special interests," who are blamed for buying tax loopholes, distorting the operations of the free market, and many cases of hemorrhoids. It's Ross Perot coming from an officer and a gentleman.

Now, I don't believe that our federal political system is a corrupt morass leading regularly to evil deeds. In fact, over the last two decades, huge swaths of American industry have been wholly or partially de-regulated, to the economic betterment of the public, and often over the objection of the lobbyists in the pay of corporate interests. As a matter of substance I have no particular objection to some campaign finance reform, but it is not high on my list of priorities.

There is however something most appealing about McCain's over-stated pitch: the rationale behind it. He says the worst aspect of the money game is the profound national cynicism it produces, particularly among young people. He believes that if the cloud of perceived corruption could be lifted it would help signal Americans that it is time to think of doing things "greater than themselves," in any number of ways. That is the right message at the right time. The decades ahead offer previously unimagined opportunity for peace, prosperity and liberty, around the world, led by America. It is not a moment for cynicism and it is a moment for energizing idealistic insurgent candidacies, of the sort that both McCain and former Sen. Bill Bradley are presenting to the voters.

McCain, the Republican, in some ways has a tougher road to hoe than Bradley, the Democrat. Bradley is running against the distasteful smash-mouth campaign of Vice President Al Gore, who has learned all the ugly and wrong political lessons from the president he serves. McCain, on the other hand, is in the difficult position of competing with an unusual political category: an under-estimated front-runner, in the person of George W. Bush, who is a good candidate, getting better each day.

Both insurgents are counting on a "media wave" following New Hampshire victories. This is pooh-poohed by some, who see money, organization, endorsements and political fire walls protecting the front-runners. They are overly sanguine. I have lived through a couple of political tidal waves, on the receiving side. In 1972 I worked on the presidential campaign of the late Sen. Henry "Scoop" Jackson and watched a virtually unknown George McGovern become an international super-celebrity after winning the Wisconsin primary (where his main issue was taxes.)

In 1976, again working with Scoop, I watched Jimmy Carter ride the wave after winning the previously ignored Iowa caucuses. Suddenly, an obscure former governor of Georgia appeared on the cover of every news magazine, led every news show, starred on every talk show, all the while painting himself with colors of his own choosing: religious, nuclear submarine commander, peanut farmer, family man, engineer, with a lovable mother, a revivalist sister and a half-nutty brother. Neither money, nor organization, nor endorsements, nor fire walls can withstand such a deluge.

Accordingly, it is unlikely -- but not impossible -- that John McCain will end up as president with a good cause.

Ben Wattenberg is a senior fellow at the American Enterprise Institute and is the moderator of PBS's "Think Tank." You may comment by clicking here.

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