The Message Is the Message

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It's across the board," said John McCain last week, referring to his victory in New Hampshire. "It came from all sectors--conservatives, moderates, liberals. It was a win for the message." His chorus of well-prepped advisers agreed. "Message is still important," said McCain strategist Mike Murphy. "And the McCain message is clearly the message that Republican Party voters have embraced." In politics this kind of echo-chamber flackery is called being on message. And as McCain and his staff pointed their famous Straight Talk Express toward South Carolina, the message they were on was--well, their message. The message is their message. Or is it the other way around?

If you think you're confused, think of all those conservatives, moderates, liberals who cast their lot with McCain last week or who propose to do so in other states as he closes in on George W. Bush. Small-government right-wingers, bleeding-heart lefties and all the squishes and fence straddlers in between--none of them agree on very much. Yet somehow they believe they have found in the McCain message a political answer to their utterly contradictory and mutually exclusive anxieties, crotchets, hopes and convictions. This must be some message.

And the secret to it is this: no one, least of all McCain, can tell you what it is. One of the neglected curiosities of this presidential-campaign season is how remarkably substantial and sophisticated it has been. The candidates have unloosed a blizzard of paper. There are fact sheets on child care, four-step plans to save Medicare, backgrounders on Medicaid reform and transportation subsidies and the tax code's deduction for dependent children. Down in Austin, Texas, Bush has assembled an entire shadow government of policy wonks to translate the gaseous cloud of his compassionate conservatism into the hard data of tax tables and impact studies.

The exception to this eruption of specificity and detail has been John McCain. For him, the campaign has been a seat-of-the-pants operation, not only in its mechanics but also in its ideas. He has mostly forsaken large-scale policy speeches in favor of town-hall Q.s and A.s, where issues can be dealt with in catchphrases. His few attempts at concreteness tend to collapse in self-contradiction. He wants to use the budget surplus to shore up Social Security and preserve it for future generations; at the same time, he would undermine it by letting workers deposit part of their payroll taxes in private accounts. Long an advocate of a flat tax with minimal loopholes, McCain proposed a tax plan riddled with loopholes for the middle class that would make flattening the tax rates more difficult. He wants to pass federal education funds back to the states with no strings attached; meanwhile he would require states to institute merit-pay programs, new teacher-hiring incentives and other Washington-mandated reforms. He says he'll push the health-care system toward a "free-market model," while having the Federal Government pay for additional benefits such as prescription drugs.

By his own declaration, McCain has always been more conversant on the arcana of foreign and military policy than the dry detail of domestic affairs. But here too there are ironies and contradictions. While accusing the Clinton Administration of allowing the military to fall into a state of perilous disrepair, McCain says he would hold defense spending to its current level or even reduce it. The list of advisers he would consult to help him formulate foreign policy--Zbigniew Brzezinski, Henry Kissinger, James Baker, Brent Scowcroft--sounds almost like a board of directors for the foreign-policy establishment. He wants to maintain the military's "Don't ask, don't tell" policy toward gays. On the matters with which he's most familiar, in other words, the revolutionary outsider looks more like an exemplar of the status quo.

McCain's image as a revolutionary rests, instead, on the word he repeats like a mantra: reform. For the most part, his reforms are unspecified or constantly evolving--he has sponsored several different versions of campaign-finance reform, for example--but to the extent he has a message, this is it: "Government has been taken from us. Let's go take it back."

This rhetorically extravagant message of a country hijacked by nameless forces of evil ("special interests") may seem far-fetched, especially in a time of such happiness and plenty. McCain's genius has been to understand that it is precisely this affluence and good cheer that make genuine ideas irrelevant. As the American economy churns and rumbles and sprays money this way and that, a message of ideological consistency would seem like mere pedantry. Reform, on the other hand, is a rubric under which people can toss all their small residual grievances, their nagging unsatisfied wants, whatever they are. Medicare? Gun control? Your failing school? Reform must be the answer. A revolutionary who promises to keep everything essential in place (the tax code, the military budget, the federal pension system) while promising to change everything--take our country back!--is the kind of revolutionary that Americans can get behind. Conservatives, liberals, moderates, across the board.