Thursday, January 31, 2008

DAVID BROOKS: The McCain Transition


John McCain is exhausted. He hasn’t had a full-night’s sleep in forever. It took him 10 hours to get to California because of flight trouble. He underperformed in the debate Wednesday night, as his staff understands. He took some shots at Mitt Romney that were gratuitous considering the circumstances, as he privately acknowledges.

But somehow in the midst of all this frenzy, McCain has to transition from being an underdog to being a front-runner. He has to transition from being an insurgent to being the leader of a broad center-right coalition. He has to transition from being a primary season scrambler to offering a broader vision of how to unify the country.

By the end of next week, McCain could be the de facto leader of the Republican Party. The McCain staff is acutely aware of the responsibility this entails, and what it will take to operate at the next level.

First, the tone of the campaign will have to change. In 2000, McCain was a joyful warrior. He was the guy rollicking through rallies waving a light saber and launching playful verbal assaults on the Bush empire. He was the guy filling his speeches with New Frontier rhetoric and glimpses of hopeful vistas. “I believe we are an unfinished nation,” he used to say.

But the Obama campaign feels more like McCain in 2000 than the current McCain campaign does. Barack Obama outshines McCain right now as the hopeful warrior. Obama is the one insistently calling on audiences to serve a cause greater than self-interest. He’s the one transcending partisanship and telling young people that politics can be the means to a meaningful, purpose-driven life.

McCain seems to be burdened by the emotional cost of the war in Iraq, by the gravity of young people dying. But F.D.R. was a happy wartime campaigner and to compete with the Democrats in the fall, McCain will have to reconnect with the spirit of this moment. The country, the über-pollster Peter Hart notes, is not in a mood for irritation and anger. It’s thirsty for uplift, progress and hope.

Second, McCain will have to clarify his vision for the future. He talks about the struggle with Islamic extremists as the transcendent foreign policy challenge of our time. But there’s a transcendent domestic challenge as well. America is segmenting. The country is dividing along the lines of education, income, religion, lifestyle and giving way to cynicism and mistrust. Government is distanced from the people and growing more corrupt.

In the past, McCain has said that repairing these divisions constitutes “a new patriotic challenge for a new century.” He has hinted at a philosophy that amounts to an American version of One Nation Conservatism. It emphasizes reforming federal institutions, calling on young people to perform national service, promoting economic competitiveness and enhancing social mobility. It is a mixture of Theodore Roosevelt and Ronald Reagan. This governing philosophy has lurked in the background this year, but McCain will have to make it explicit to move a nation.

Finally, McCain is going to have to beef up his domestic policy offerings. He has some excellent ideas, like his plan to control health care costs, which he doesn’t explain well. But he has not yet focused sufficiently on the group that is always the key to Republican success or failure — the suburban working class.

Picture a suburban townhouse community filled with families making $40,000 to $60,000 a year. Maybe there’s a single mother in one unit who hates her job but needs the benefits. Maybe there are immigrant parents with associate degrees watching their son drop out of school in another. The definition of being middle class has changed, as many have noticed. It used to be a destination. Now it’s an uncertain place. It’s a struggle just to stay there. Any candidate who can’t talk specifically to these concerns is doomed.

If McCain does well on Super Tuesday, he would have pulled off one of the greatest comeback stories in modern political history. He would owe his victory to his character, his honesty and his tenacity.

But already, he is being judged by different standards. Republicans are wondering how he would compete against Hillary Clinton (whom they moderately fear) and Obama (whom they fear a great deal). To unify the party, McCain will have to respect different parts of the coalition. But more importantly, he will also have to excite Republicans with the possibility of a G.O.P. victory.

He will have to mine his own past and bring forward the ideals and causes that lurk there, and present them as a coherent package. He’ll have to show that winning the nomination of a dispirited Republican Party is one thing; winning the presidency and uniting a nation is another.

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