Reality Show

Sunday, April 29, 2007

LAST WEEK John McCain embarked on an announcement tour quite different than he might once have envisioned. In a party that prefers the stately succession to the unseemly scrum, the Arizona Republican had positioned himself to become the logical, perhaps inevitable, heir to President Bush. Instead, Mr. McCain finds himself down in the polls, lagging in fund-raising and dogged by his identification with an unpopular war. His efforts to cozy up to figures such as the Rev. Jerry Falwell -- whom Mr. McCain once branded an "agent of intolerance" -- tarnished his reputation as a straight talker without winning him much credit among social conservatives, who have always been far more suspicious of the senator than his record would justify. In recent months, he has seemed weary and beleaguered, not the happy warrior of the 2000 campaign.

But Mr. McCain's remarks upon his formal entry into the 2008 presidential campaign offered a reminder of the appealing qualities that attracted so many voters eight years ago -- and that make him a formidable contender still.

The central issue of this election is the war in Iraq, and the senator is the candidate most identified with making the case for war in the first place and for not leaving precipitously now. He did not shrink from the issue in his announcement, admitting the war "has not gone well" and referring to it in appropriately cautionary terms. "America should never undertake a war unless we are prepared to do everything necessary to succeed, unless we have a realistic and comprehensive plan for success, and unless all relevant agencies of government are committed to that success," he said. "We did not meet this responsibility initially. And we must never repeat that mistake again."

Mr. McCain did not say so, but he has been making these points since well before the invasion. Whatever your position on the war, then or now, Mr. McCain deserves credit for foresight and consistency about how the war should have been waged. And he was, properly, unflinching about the terrorist challenge facing the country he hopes to lead: "a global struggle with violent extremists who despise us, our values and modernity itself."

The senator spent the bulk of his speech outlining other priorities, including reforming a wasteful and needlessly complex tax code, reducing dependence on foreign oil, maintaining free trade while finding more effective ways to help workers hurt by globalization, and helping the uninsured "without bankrupting the country." His to-do list contains many of the right items, though he shied away from one important area -- immigration -- where he has been more forward-looking than many in his party.

His discussion of the looming problem of runaway entitlement spending was forthright. "Here's the plain truth: there are too few workers supporting too many retirees," he said, "and if we don't make some tough choices today, Social Security and Medicare will go bankrupt, or we'll have to raise taxes so drastically we'll crush the prosperity of average Americans." As with the other areas he discussed, the senator didn't spell out what tough choices he would endorse, but at least he addressed the issue, neither discounting the magnitude of the problem nor promising a painless solution. This is why the 2008 race is better for having Mr. McCain in it.

© 2007 The Washington Post Company