You would expect a Navy man and a pilot would understand the importance of directional control in order to achieve accurate navigation. From way up here in the cheap seats, it’s difficult to tell what kind of directional control John McCain is providing to his campaign and the development of his platform for a potential presidency. Honestly, I can’t tell if he’s floundering or plodding along. One thing seems certain though, if he doesn’t know where he’s going, he’ll never get there. Leadership is all about the destination. Where are we going? What’s the goal? Presidents must identify those answers and marshal the citizens.
Given McCain’s propensity for disassociating himself from his Republican Party during his 26 years in Congress and the Senate, historical party norms are of little help in identifying where it is he wants to take the United States. He seems very comfortable bucking party trends whenever possible, in order to be seen as different. Apparently, it’s been working, too. In a recent USA TODAY survey, 45% of the people polled described McCain as a “different kind of Republican.” Yes, I think that’s a fair assessment. It has the potential to be a very beneficial assessment, too, since Americans are rather enamored with the idea of change in 2008. Americans aren’t interested in a perpetuation of politics as usual, so McCain’s maverick image, honed since 1982, could help him to separate himself from the Bush Presidency.
Here’s the rub, though. He is flying aimlessly between the twin peaks of Mount AppealToYourBase and Independent’s Mountain. Watching him campaign, I’m left with the feeling that years of boat-rocking and anthill-kicking were the random acts of a politician who couldn’t see the forest through the trees or who simply liked to be different. There is no pattern of behavior. Campaign strategist Steve Schmidt says, “People view him as fundamentally different from what they’re sick of in Washington, which is partisanship for partisanship’s sake. The American people view him as his own man.” On the one hand he supports the war in Iraq, holding to a “the best defense is a good offense” foreign policy, and then talks about the need to engage other world leaders. Each of these positions will have supporters but the task for Senator McCain is tying the two together. The maverick career of John McCain looks to be all about establishing his credentials as being personally “different,” without attempting to advance the veracity of any unique world view, set of values or leadership style.
It’s not so much that he is flip-flopping, although he is–even if only by degrees, subtle nuances, and semantics. But he’s forced to hunt around for ideas that appease his base and yet attract independents. Expressing his policies to appease both would require great rhetorical skills and oratory deftness, neither of which he possesses in any great measure. By appearances, he is word-smithing his policy ideas in order to please everyone but in reality he is letting the whims of a greedy and entitled electorate determine his policy. With so many competing agendas, McCain sounds like a Summa Cum Laude graduate from the Charlie Brown school of Policy Development. Maybe by September this will all sound less disjointed.
Senator McCain has an incredible advantage in this election given the high marks he receives from voters in both parties regarding his integrity and character. When the campaign is focused on personal qualities, McCain is the easy frontrunner. But when the campaign addresses policy he falters.
Questions abound about whether McCain can re-brand the Republican Party. Is his candidacy the first step towards changing the direction of the GOP and stripping power from those who have ascended the ranks in the last 30 years? Or is he the next in line in a succession of Reagan disciples looking to bring back the ‘80s? I suspect the answer is “C, None of the Above.” McCain looks more like a transitional Party Head who can be a caretaker of the GOP until a true heir can be identified. Which is too bad because the time has come for a New Republican torchbearer. Today, McCain is the least imperfect solution to the GOP candidacy for the presidency. His lack of a demonstrable set of values which guide his every decision though, makes it hard to imagine that he could be responsible for branding anything.
His recent tour of economically disadvantaged regions of the country had great promise, if it had been the manifestation of new Republican values championed by the Party’s candidate. Instead, it had all the meaning of a poorly attended benefit dinner. At this point, it is not what he says but why he says it. Does he believe that the poorest in America deserve his attention because he simply wants to be viewed differently than other Republicans, or do they deserve his attention because at its core conservatism values people, communities and investments in our social and economic infrastructure?
We’re about six months from Election Day. It’s time for Senator McCain to tell us where HE wants to take US and why that place is worth going to and then he needs to sell this destination to the American people.
“There’s a lush valley, America, that I’d like to take you to, somewhere between Mount AppealToYourBase and Independent’s Mountain. It sits in the shadow of majestic purple mountains, and is covered in amber waves of grain. Let me tell you more about it and how we’re going to get there.”