McCain, Obama Vie For 'Reformist' Mantle

By Jonathan Weisman
Washington Post Staff Writer
Friday, September 5, 2008

When Sen. John McCain introduced Sarah Palin as his running mate last week, he declared they would "beat the long odds to win a tough election on a message of reform and integrity." Alaska's governor promised they would take "our message of reform to every voter of every background." Sen. Joseph I. Lieberman (I-Conn.) pronounced McCain "a restless reformer," now with a running-mate "reformer" to boot.

"Reform" became the watchword of the Republican National Convention, the noun, verb and adjective that McCain and his surrogates have tried to attach to the candidate, his running mate and his policy proposals. In the speeches that preceded McCain's last night, the words reform or reformer came up no less than 11 times. But what it means is unclear. It does not appear to have much to do with campaign finance reform, immigration reform, reforming the selection and confirmation of judges -- all issues that McCain had something to do with and have helped define his career in the Senate. They have gone largely unmentioned in St. Paul, Minn., where many of the delegates fought him on each of those efforts.

In McCain's attempt to fire up the Republican base without losing his "maverick" image, calls for reform have come to mean a pledge to "change" Washington -- with little explanation of what that change would be or how that change would take effect. "Let me offer an advance warning to the old, big spending, do nothing, me first, country second Washington crowd," McCain warned last night. "Change is coming." McCain aides now dismiss "programmatic" notions of reform in favor of a definition both more sweeping and more nebulous.

"I think that at this point, what he's conveying is not programmatic reforms but the need for larger institutional reform to combat the transparent failures of a Congress with a 9 percent approval rating and a Bush administration that people are tired of," said Douglas Holtz-Eakin, a senior McCain policy adviser. "It's a reform of attitude and conduct."

That attitudinal shift could mean more collegiality in pursuit of bipartisan solutions, Holtz-Eakin said, but then again, a reformist attitude "could be confrontational if that means getting real results."

John Weaver, a former McCain aide and confidant, was less charitable: "It's whatever that viewer happens to believe is reform."

To be sure, reform -- a vague notion of changing or improving what is wrong or corrupt -- has been a staple of the American political vocabulary. James A. Thurber, director of American University's Center for Congressional and Presidential Studies, said change and reform are the interchangeable mainstays of his campaign button collection that goes back to the Martin Van Buren presidency of 1837. George W. Bush fell back on a new slogan "a reformer with results" after McCain bloodied him badly in New Hampshire in 2000.

This year, in the midst of a war, an economic downturn, an unpopular presidency and general dissatisfaction with the failure of the political system to deal with big problems, both McCain and his Democratic opponent, Sen. Barack Obama, are scrambling for the reformist mantle, hoping to appeal to the disaffected middle without alienating the activist party bases.

Neither candidate quite fits the persona he has constructed for himself. Forty-two of McCain's top campaign aides hail from the lobbying and advocacy business, as do 23 of Obama's, Thurber said. And in a Washington where the number of moderates has dwindled and partisan combat is entrenched, McCain and Obama have been disingenuous with their promises to change the way the capital works, Thurber said.

"I don't see fairy dust that can be sprinkled over everything and make everyone come together," he said.

What all that means for a McCain-Palin administration is in the eye of the beholder, Weaver said. It could mean a focus on McCain's issues from the past, such as immigration reform, working across party lines to bring comity and good governance back to Washington.

Holtz-Eakin mentioned working with Democrats -- moving "past the partisanship of this Democratic Congress and Bush and Republican Congresses of the past" -- as key to what a McCain reform administration would mean. But conservatives in St. Paul like to believe McCain's newest notion of reform is much narrower, a simple effort to rein in government spending and eliminate the earmarking of federal dollars for lawmakers' pet projects.

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