Like a lot of folks, I thought McCain looked prickly, sarcastic andbrimmingwith contempt last night. I also thought this debate was fairlysubstantiveall in all, and that Scheiffer did a good job. But it was, to invoke acampaign cliche, mostly “more of the same.” McCain hot, Obama cool.Obamawins.
What struck me most, though was this: On foreign policy, despite thefactthat many of McCain’s ideas are truly nutty, dangerous and indefensible,youdo sense that he has a real base of knowledge, a fairly thought-outworldview (honor! victory! war!) and pretty deep experience dealing with andthinking about America’s role in the world. On domestic policy thisclearlyisn’t the case, and indeed, McCain himself has admitted this. So whatMcCaindoes is skate buy on a very rote, basic Reaganite catchism: too muchspending, cut taxes, government isn’t the solution to the problem,government is the problem. We don’t want to “spread the wealth around,”wewant to give consumer’s individual choices. My opponent will raise yourtaxes. Small businesses create jobs. On and on and on.
For two decades this basic line had a sort of built-in politicalpotency.Republican politicians could just kind of memorize the prayer book andthenrecite it in response to any policy question. It was a neat littlehustle,and tremendously effective. Combined with What’s the Matter With Kansas,anti-government populism it gave every Republican a pre-fab message, anoff-the-shelf toolkit for any political situation they found themselvesin.It required very little actual thought.
What’s so remarkable about how this campaign is playing out, is thatthisonce very powerful message has simply lost its potency. It just doesn’tresonate. If you don’t believe me, check out this poll whichshows aplurality of Americans believing that “socialized medicine” – describedbythe pollsters in just that phrase — would be better than what we havenow.When calling something “socialist” loses its sting, the Republicans arereally in trouble.
The moment when the Reaganite platform was at its apex, say in the early1980s, was a very, very different time in American life: high inflation,slow growth, higher levels of taxation, lots of crime, tremendousdislocation, etc, etc, etc. Things are very different now. It doesn’tmeanAmerica’s about to explode into social democracy (if only!) Indeed,Obama’svery, very careful centrism is a testament to the fact that thetraditionalright-wing attacks (he’ll raise your taxes!) still draw blood.
But even while the ideological bankruptcy of simple-minded, knee-jerkReagan-Goldwaterism has long been evident, what we’re seeing rightbeforeour eyes in its political demise. John McCain will be the lastRepublican torun as a Reagan reincarnation.
UPDATE: Matt Duss writes in with this smart point:
“I would quibble over the idea that McCain has “a real base of knowledge” about the Middle East. I think it’s clear that he knows a lot about Russia/Europe/Latin America issues — which makes sense for a dedicated Reaganite Cold Warrior — but then 9/11 happened, and rather than do his homework on the various ideologies and movements at play in the region, he kind of said “ah, whatever” and applied his Cold War/Great Power conflict template where it doesn’t fit.”