The Ambiguities Of 'reform'

THE AMBIGUITIES OF 'REFORM'.... In his acceptance speech last night, John McCain once again emphasized his desire to "reform government." He wasn't specific about what kind of reform, or even what he thinks "reform" means.

There was a point, about a decade or so ago, that McCain was best known for his work with Russ Feingold on campaign-finance reform. It was one of the signature issues of his 2000 presidential campaign, when McCain got so much mileage out of his reform spiel, then-Gov. George W. Bush, worried about watching the nomination slip away, labeled himself a "reformer with results" -- as if to say that McCain talks about reform, but can't deliver. (Bush later signed McCain's bill into law.)

Eight years later, McCain is still emphasizing "reform," but only in the shallowest, most ambiguous way. He's certainly not talking about campaign-finance reform anymore; Republicans hate it. He's not talking about lobbying reform, in part because Barack Obama already did great work on the issue.

TNR's Brad Plumer asked a very good question in a terrific piece: what is it, exactly, that McCain wants to reform?

Okay, he hates congressional earmarks, and he's promised to veto the first pork-stuffed bill that crosses his desk. Except that, as Jon Chait pointed out, whenever McCain's been challenged on specific earmarks in the past that are actually popular, he's backed off -- as when he met an ovarian cancer patient in Pennsylvania being treated in an earmark-funded clinical trial program funded. And his campaign has suggested he wouldn't even necessarily object to that much-mocked bear DNA project in Montana, as long as the "process" is clean. So he'll veto a few earmarks, the "bad" ones, with a modest effect on less than 1 percent of the federal budget. [...]What about cleaning up the executive branch? One could look at all the ways in which the Bush administration has allowed hacks, cronies, and industry lobbyists to infiltrate every level of government. Would McCain chart a different course? How? Is he going to fire every single one of Bush's appointees? McCain doesn't seem to have trouble letting lobbyists run his campaign -- and he only started scuttling some of the more inconvenient aides when the press pointed out that he was being a wee bit hypocritical. More broadly, does McCain think it was inappropriate for Bush to appoint drug-industry lobbyists to key positions at the FDA, HHS, and elsewhere (to take one example)? Would McCain, too, stock key regulatory positions with people plucked from the very industries that are supposed to be overseen? His website is maddeningly vague about all this, except insofar as McCain doesn't like the "revolving door" whereby lawmakers leave their posts and join lobbying firms.




When Barack Obama talks about "change," he'll emphasize the more amorphous notion of changing how the political system operates, but more importantly, he backs up the rhetoric with a substantive policy agenda. Voters know, or are at least given an opportunity to know, what Obama wants to change, and how he'd go about doing it.

In contrast, when McCain talks about "reform," we get pleasant sounding platitudes: "John McCain understands that in America the people are sovereign, and deserve a political process worthy of the sacrifices that have been made by so many to keep us free and proud. As President, John McCain will see to it that the institutions of self-government are respected pillars of democracy, not commodities to be bought, bartered, or absed."

That certainly sounds nice. I suspect everyone would agree with every word of it. But if McCain could take a moment at some point over the next 60 days to explain what it means, it'd be helpful.

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