Editore"s Note
Tilting at Windmills

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October 25, 2008

THE RETURN OF THE MAYBERRY MACHIAVELLIS.... Ross Douthat makes an interesting observation about how the McCain campaign approached policy issues, or in its case, doesn't.

One of the many fascinating things about Robert Draper's Times Magazine story on the McCain campaign is what isn't included in its account of the attempts to brand (and rebrand, and rebrand) John McCain's candidacy: Namely, any real discussion of policy. From Draper's account, the McCain campaign staff has gone around and around trying to figure out how to sell their candidate -- as a fighter! as an experienced leader! as a maverick! etc. -- but hardly ever seemed to have spent much time thinking about how these narratives would mesh with or be reinforced by the actual policy agenda the campaign was advancing.

Think about what we're supposed to expect from a McCain administration. What is it that he really wants to do if elected to the presidency? He offers a lot of vague rhetoric about "reforming" things, but no one's sure what that means.

Seriously, after two full years of campaigning, does McCain even have a policy agenda? McCain spends a lot of time making personal attack against Obama, but off the top of your head, try to name three big, unique policy ideas that McCain takes seriously and wants to implement. It's surprisingly difficult.

McCain seems to like coastal drilling -- which he opposed up until fairly recently -- but that wouldn't affect the marketplace for a decade. McCain seems to like Bush's tax cuts for the wealthy -- which he also opposed up until fairly recently -- but that's just a continuation of the last eight years. McCain seems to like Bush's Iraq policy, but that's also just more of the same. He seems to hate earmarks quite a bit -- despite the earmarks he's requested as a long-time Washington insider -- but since they constitute a tiny fraction of the budget, it's hardly a consequential policy proposal.

If all of this sounds familiar, there's a very good reason.

In an interview with Esquire magazine, [John J. DiIulio Jr., a domestic policy advisor to George W. Bush] said: ''There is no precedent in any modern White House for what is going on in this one: a complete lack of a policy apparatus. What you've got is everything, and I mean everything, being run by the political arm. It's the reign of the Mayberry Machiavellis.''

The two are identical. Bush and McCain have sought power for power's sake.

Steve Benen 11:55 AM Permalink | Trackbacks | Comments (30)

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Q. What does McCain really want to do as president?

A. The opposite of whatever Democrats want to do.

With apologies to Atrios, this has been simple answers to simple questions.

Posted by: Chris on October 25, 2008 at 11:56 AM | PERMALINK

We may have also witnessed the country's first entirely projection-based presidential campaign.

Barack Obama is a celebrity (never mind that John McCain has been on the Tonight Show thirteen times and has his own IMDB entry.)

Obama gives pretty speeches, but no specifics (never mind that Obama's website has detailed policy proposals, and McCain's stated energy policy at the time was "John McCain will take bold action to lower gas prices.")

Obama is an elitist (says the multimillionaire who can't remember how many houses he owns and has thirteen cars.)

The list goes on...

Posted by: Redshift on October 25, 2008 at 12:02 PM | PERMALINK

Q. What does McCain really want to do as president?

A. The opposite of whatever Democrats want to do.

But he's different from Bush -- he'll reach across the aisle to do the opposite of whatever Democrats want to do.

Posted by: Redshift on October 25, 2008 at 12:05 PM | PERMALINK

A simpler explanation is that they do have a policy agenda, but knowing that if the agenda is expressed publicly in a clear and succinct manner very few will vote for them, they make these heroic attempts to shift the subject to matters of personality.

Here 'they' refers to the generic 'they', i.e., the movement behind McCain and GWB, and not just the candidates or their advisers. The term includes the religious right establishment and most of the corporate interests.

Posted by: gregor on October 25, 2008 at 12:05 PM | PERMALINK

In fairness to Mayberry, Andy Griffith and Ron Howard are outspoken Obama supporters.

Machiavelli hasn't yet endorsed.

Posted by: Gene O'Grady on October 25, 2008 at 12:09 PM | PERMALINK

Yes, but McCain "Knows how to do it." Whatever "do" might mean.

Posted by: Dale on October 25, 2008 at 12:11 PM | PERMALINK

Poor John McCain just cant get a break.

Posted by: Jet on October 25, 2008 at 12:12 PM | PERMALINK

Kooky concision

"Compassionate Conservatism" was changed to "Country First."

Do you suppose alliteration help sell the first and doomed the second?

Posted by: koreyel on October 25, 2008 at 12:13 PM | PERMALINK

I agree in general, but I do want to make a comment about off-shore drilling. It wouldn't affect the oil and gas supply in the short term, but it would provide jobs here in the U.S. in the short term. For all the arguments in favor of and against offshore drilling, I rarely see it mentioned that seismic crews have to be manned to do the exploration, drilling rigs manufactured and roughnecks hired, pipelines built and laid, etc., etc., etc. Given that we are in a recession, this is a reason to support this stuff, even if the domestic production benefit doesn't manifest for several years.

Just wanted to get that off my chest.

The only McCain position that I can really think of that he has pretty much always had is to continue the Bush policy of war mongering--which has ALWAYS been the best reason to vote against him.

Posted by: RWB on October 25, 2008 at 12:14 PM | PERMALINK

Gregor @ 12:05 has it right. Weakening government to the point that they "can drown it in the bath tub," probably didn't do well in the focus groups. Same for looting the Treasury.

Posted by: AK Liberal on October 25, 2008 at 12:15 PM | PERMALINK

Why should we expect the ANTI-GOVERNMENT party of Laissez Fairies to have policies for anything?

Posted by: bakho on October 25, 2008 at 12:18 PM | PERMALINK

This is why McCain's "suspending his campaign" stunt failed so miserably. I think it was a stupid idea regardless, but they executed it so poorly, of course it didn't work. Their plan was for McCain to swoop into D.C. and help get the bailout bill passed, but they didn't think about the policy. What would McCain advocate for in the negotiations? He had no plan, no policies, no clear statement of what would make a good or a bad bailout bill. They say Obama's all style, no substance, but McCain's all strategy, no substance.

Posted by: raging red on October 25, 2008 at 12:25 PM | PERMALINK

This is why McCain's "suspending his campaign" stunt failed so miserably. I think it was a stupid idea regardless, but they executed it so poorly, of course it didn't work. Their plan was for McCain to swoop into D.C. and help get the bailout bill passed, but they didn't think about the policy. What would McCain advocate for in the negotiations? He had no plan, no policies, no clear statement of what would make a good or a bad bailout bill. They say Obama's all style, no substance, but McCain's all strategy, no substance.

Posted by: raging red on October 25, 2008 at 12:25 PM | PERMALINK

McCain's stated energy policy at the time was "John McCain will take bold action to lower gas prices."

I loved that one. Was the bold action taken? Did John McCain create the global financial crisis to lower gas prices?

It would be irresponsible not to speculate.

My friends.

Posted by: on October 25, 2008 at 12:26 PM | PERMALINK

gregor is right. If they actually stated their policies then the world would shudder. See Mr. Schueneman for example and of course Phil Grahm. They've been kept on the backburner because their worldviews and policy proposals are fucking frightening.

the frightening thing about McCain's advisors is that they are all not very well educated but rather just ignorant hacks and lobbyists who will retreat to their bunkers when their visions go up in flames. This is not a metaphor.

Their first priority is turning central asia into a radioactive dump, or more of one than it already is through bunker busters and dial a bombs.

Schuneman is a military industrial fascist who sees his game of risk being taken away.

Grahm is a crypto fascist friedmanite who would be happy to have McCain play Pinochet. That story struck a nerve since I've been making the analogy of McCain to Pinochet for a few months.

Charlie Black? This guy is an epic failure.

Max Boot? The idea that this idiot is taken seriously is a stain on our nation.

the list goes on and on.

Posted by: grinning cat on October 25, 2008 at 12:41 PM | PERMALINK

Look, the campaign is being run by Rove acolytes, aka loyal Bushies. They know and care nothing about policy and governing, only about politics and campaigning. Policy is subservient to politics. Unfortnunately for them, the political landscape has dramatically changed, and they remain unable to coble together a policy-based campaign. So, they flounder.

Posted by: PaminBB on October 25, 2008 at 12:43 PM | PERMALINK

McCain's inner sanctum is a who's who of fuck ups and embarassments to our nation that should be testifying at the Hague.

Posted by: grinning cat on October 25, 2008 at 12:43 PM | PERMALINK

And they are both incurious, products of privilege frat boy types, who as youths had no reason to be serious as they both had influential families which could extract them from whatever jam into which they put themselves.

I am convinced that McCain is even more incurious than is Incurious George.

Posted by: Chris Brown on October 25, 2008 at 12:43 PM | PERMALINK

RWB - The last thing we should be doing is investing heavily in future oil production. We are supposed to be developing alternative energy, but we will never do that as long as we are slaves to ever more oil production. We can create millions of jobs now in alternative energy, and obviate the need for those future supplies of oil. We have to start. We have to get off our asses and get going.

Every dollar wasted in future oil production, every job wasted to supply it, brings us closer to the brink of the combined catastrophes of out of control global warming and peak oil. Then we will have no choice but to turn to more fossil fuels, like dirty coal, making things even worse.

We have to break our addiction to oil. Right now it's a vicious circle. Oil prices go up, we have to drill more. Oil prices go down, the crisis is over, back to more drilling.

Posted by: hark on October 25, 2008 at 12:47 PM | PERMALINK

And we are basically seeing the country become aware of this.

Posted by: TBone on October 25, 2008 at 12:52 PM | PERMALINK

Steve: "The two are identical. Bush and McCain have sought power for power's sake."

You've a discernable talent for re-stating the painfully obvious.

Posted by: Out & About in The Castro on October 25, 2008 at 12:59 PM | PERMALINK

John McCain could not even conduct a coherent debate. His arguments were a jumble of one liners with no real central theme.

McCain really has become a creature of D.C. and reflects the muddled group thought concealing a thousand conflicting interests united solely by the flow of money that reigns over the capitol.

Posted by: lou on October 25, 2008 at 1:02 PM | PERMALINK

In fairness to Mayberry, Andy Griffith and Ron Howard are outspoken Obama supporters.
They sure are.

Posted by: mark on October 25, 2008 at 1:34 PM | PERMALINK

On Friday's Hardball, Chris Matthews called it the Seinfeld Campaign, a campaign about nothing. Ouch.

Posted by: TR on October 25, 2008 at 1:35 PM | PERMALINK

This is exactly right. I was shocked at how utterly vapid the NYT piece was--there wasn't a single lick of policy. The two candidates here are about as far apart on the major issues of the day as any two we've ever seen; this is a dramatic clash of two fundamentally different approaches to government. And yet they're approaching policy like two guys running in a party primary for dogcatcher.

The McCain campaign's inability to campaign on policy was brought home to me this morning by an health care op-ed in the Wall Street Journal--which, for the first time ever, was an op-ed about health care that was largely factual and reality-based.

The op-ed made the valid point that Obama's attack on the "tax increase" in employer sponsored benefits in McCain's health care plan is terribly cynical. That getting rid of the employer deduction and decoupling health care coverage from employment is actually a policy proscription that has a lot of support--including Obama's own advisors. It's fair to call out Obama for pandering when he says people can keep their employer-based health insurance: nobody on any side of the healthcare debate who was designing a system from scratch would ever put that in place. (Now, it happens to be smart pandering because people WANT to keep what they have, but it's a very fair point that Obama is not exactly following the advice of experts or taking a principled stand here).

If McCain's group had been on the ball, I'm sure they could have dug up an instance where Obama said nice things about Sen. Wyden's very popular bipartisan health care plan which includes taxing these benefits. And then, of course, nailed him for pandering and hypocrisy.

But that's the rub. McCain's team couldn't see this hit because they doesn't know about policy. They don't care. McCain flubbed an attack on Obama's health care policy in the last debate because neither he nor his people understand the health care policy landscape. For them, making political hay of the other side's bad policy is like trying to argue in Greek. They just don't speak the language.

And that, to me, is the McCain team's greatest failing. They genuinely do not believe that good policy makes for good politics. They think it's simply not part of modern politics or modern governing. In their universe, it doesn't matter what decisions they actually make in office--winning elections isn't about achieving good outcomes and taking the credit for them! It's all about money, payoffs to their supporters, public perception, media stunts, and running a good scorched-earth campaign against their opponent.

That, in a nutshell, is the failure of the modern Republican political movement. Even after Bush, they remain a genuinely radical movement. They are worse than free market radicals. They border on anarchists. They genuinely do not believe that anything they do in office aside from fighting wars actually matters--aside from wars, absolutely nothing the government does can help our nation be stronger and better. They really believe that our current economic crisis was just a cyclical trend--or the crisis was somehow caused by a government-sponsored entity. "Government is the problem" is not just a slogan for them.

It's a genuinely dangerous ideology for a governing party to have. They do not believe they can win elections by governing well--because they really don't believe there is such a thing.

It's crazy.

Posted by: anonymiss on October 25, 2008 at 2:03 PM | PERMALINK

I don't think its particularly relevant even if true to any degree (and I'm on some pretty thin ice even suggesting that it might be), but the two seem to be seeking power for its own sake to better compare with their fathers and other "great men" both in their respective families and otherwise.

Posted by: jhm on October 25, 2008 at 3:23 PM | PERMALINK

In the last 20 years Republicans have been acutely short of public policy ideas that could be presented in an intellectually honest way and stand a chance of drawing wide support. That left them with deceit and packaging, which one the whole they have employed effectively. But the well has run dry, none too soon for the good of the country.

Posted by: Ken D. on October 25, 2008 at 3:39 PM | PERMALINK

anonymiss at 2:03: Great post.

Posted by: shortstop on October 25, 2008 at 5:29 PM | PERMALINK

Seriously, I can easily think of several McCain policies off the top of my head. No Googling.

Drill, baby, drill! This future drip of oil 15 years from now will force prices down now.

Carbon credits for polluters as a giveaway.

Buy bad mortgages at full price.

Stop talking to the people the Bush II administration is starting to talk to again.

Actively get the Democratic Congress to renew the Bush tax cuts, then add new tax cuts for investors.

Build tens of nuclear plants in his first term.

No litmus test on Supreme Court appointees, but they won't be pro-choice!

Veto all pork.

Miraculously balance the budget in four years.

Fully fund the Future Combat System, which he used to hate but he loves it now because Obama hates it.

Regulate Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac, but deregulate the rest of the financial industry.

Declare Pakistan a safe haven for Osama bin Laden if Pakistan refuses to cooperate.

The list of bad ideas goes on and on. Or did you only mean sane policy ideas?

Posted by: Gene Ha on October 25, 2008 at 9:30 PM | PERMALINK

RWB:
I agree in general, but I do want to make a comment about off-shore drilling. It wouldn't affect the oil and gas supply in the short term, but it would provide jobs here in the U.S. in the short term.

Actually, it wouldn't do that, either. There's a global shortage of the required drill-ships, and most of the ones currently under construction are already signed up for four to seven-year contracts in advance by oil companies who want to take advantage of high oil prices. Because of this lack of available equipment, by the time any effect from relaxing restrictions on offshore drilling is felt, the current recession will be long over. (If it isn't, we've got much bigger problems.)

Posted by: Redshift on October 26, 2008 at 1:12 AM | PERMALINK




 

 

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