SINCE ITS triumph in the 1994 election, the Republican Party has fared poorly by attacking big government. No great surprise, but it turns out that a lot of federal programs are pretty popular, even if government in the abstract is not. In launching his presidential campaign on Monday, Sen. John McCain has offered a different idea around which his party might plausibly organize. Rather than attack big government, he attacked bad government. Rather than promising to cut public programs, he promised to restore pride in public service.
Mr. McCain aims to accomplish this by two methods. First, he offers admonition and example. He urges Americans to renew their patriotism, "to know the sense of pride and purpose of serving a cause greater than themselves." His new autobiography recounts how he himself served his country, enduring imprisonment and torture in Vietnam. When a war hero equates public service with military service, and declares that both are a sacred honor, he strikes a small blow against the contempt for politics that has spread in the Clinton era.
Second, Mr. McCain aims to restore pride in government by slaying the demons that corrupt it. He denounces business lobbyists for filling the tax code with loopholes and corporate subsidies; he denounces trial lawyers and insurance companies for fouling up health policy; he denounces union lobbyists for blocking education reform. All these groups, Mr. McCain argues, can nix sensible policies because political parties depend on them for donations. Campaign finance reform, which Mr. McCain has long championed in the Senate, is thus presented as the key to democratic revival.
It is not clear how much voters will be moved by the candidate's Vietnam record: The army is beset with severe recruiting difficulties, suggesting that rather few Americans identify with Mr. McCain's idealized view of military service. Moreover, his assault on big-money influence is perilous. The candidate must inevitably raise his own campaign money, and his campaign finance bill is far too modest to bring about the rebirth of politics that the candidate promises. Bad government may indeed be a better target for Republican attack than big government. But good government is an elusive thing.