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A Time For McCain?

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By Sebastian Mallaby
Monday, October 3, 2005

In the 2000 presidential campaign, George W. Bush promised to bring a tone of probity to Washington. He said this despite having demolished his honorable rival in the primaries, Sen. John McCain, with the help of dishonorable slanders. Now that government corruption, as measured by the number of pork projects enacted, has more than doubled on Bush's watch, and now that Bush's chief procurement officer and chief congressional ally have both been indicted, Bush's promise of probity has become a hollow joke. If there is any justice in the world, McCain and McCainism should benefit.

McCainism ought to gain because both rival views of government are bankrupt. The small-government right has been discredited because it has presided over an astonishing 33 percent rise in federal spending since 2001, and a rise in non-defense spending of 29 percent. In 1987 Congress passed a highway bill that contained some 150 pork projects, but Bush and the Republican Congress have just produced a bill that contained more than 6,000. Conservative rhetoric about cutting government has proved totally empty.

Meanwhile the big-government left doesn't look any better. The reason for all that government-cutting rhetoric is that, guess what, government is frequently dysfunctional. Hurricane Katrina has taught this lesson once again, and you can't blame the disaster only on Bush's incompetence. New Orleans had inadequate levees because the process for allocating the government's water-infrastructure budget has been corrupt for years. Homes had been built in crazy places because of the government's crazy approach to flood insurance. Once the hurricane hit, the dysfunction of state and local government was just as profound as the dysfunction of Team Bush. It's hard to be a full-throated government booster in the face of all this evidence.

So the small-government right and the big-government left are equally exhausted. The only appealing political platform is good government. This is what McCainism is about. The senator has waged lonely battles not to make government bigger or smaller, but simply to make it better. Hence his campaign against corrupt campaign dollars. Hence the pigs on his Web site that link to a case-by-case denunciation of corrupt pork-barrel spending. Hence his fury at the Bush administration's mistreatment of foreign detainees, which undermines government by destroying its moral authority.

The point about McCainism is not that you have to agree with every one of the senator's positions. You just have to understand their spirit. McCain is saying that government cannot be an effective instrument until it earns back public trust, and, further, that a patriotic nation needs a government it can believe in. This is why McCain is willing to alienate his Senate colleagues by posting their pork projects on his Web site. The fight for decent government warrants making a few enemies.

In his 2000 presidential bid, McCain challenged the prevailing transactional view of politics. The transactional view holds that candidates must mobilize selected groups -- farmers, small-business owners, minorities and so on -- to support their campaigns, then repay them with government favors once they are in office. The transactional view brings you a system dominated by Terry McAuliffe, Karl Rove and Tom DeLay -- people who use interest groups to win control of government and government to win the loyalty of interest groups. The purest expression of the transactional mind-set came during a Bush-Gore debate in 2000. A questioner from the audience who was neither poor nor sick nor otherwise needy demanded to know what each candidate could do for her. Rather than retorting that government doesn't retail favors to individual voters, both candidates competed to oblige her.

McCain's candidacy rebelled against this style of politics. Echoing John F. Kennedy's famous lines, he urged voters to ask not what government could do for them but what they could do for their country. In town after small town in his victorious New Hampshire primary campaign, McCain preached the virtue -- and more than that, the satisfaction -- of committing to a cause larger than oneself: to the nation, to its system of values, to common ideals of honesty and decency. This appeal lays the emotional basis on which to build a better government. So long as voters regard elections as advanced sales of stolen goods, corrupt and dysfunctional spending will discredit federal programs. Government has to be rescued from the me-me mind-set.

It's tempting to say that McCainism is hopeless: that the appeal to patriotic selflessness is futile in a narcissistic culture. But Americans' impatience with conventional politics is too obvious to ignore. More identify themselves as independent than as supporters of either main party. Millions flock to maverick reformers from Ross Perot to Jesse Ventura to Arnold Schwarzenegger, tiring of them once they've been around a while and become part of the system. Only 29 percent of Americans say they trust government, down from 40 percent in 2000. McCainism -- whether practiced by the senator or by some other charismatic campaigner -- will eventually have its moment.

mallabys@washpost.com


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