- The Washington Times - Friday, February 25, 2000

A fascinating force field surrounds John McCain's presidential candidacy. Besides the compelling personal story (a phrase that may well become a single word), the era-appropriate energy of "edginess," and the rah-rah slogans of "reform," Mr. McCain's powers of attraction emanate also from the undiluted glee of challenging the nobody-asked-us presumption that was always George W. Bush's candidacy. Such glee a rare delight in life is completely understandable. But there is something more to this force field, something that seems to be equally, if not more alluring to Mr. McCain's supporters: the seemingly endless possibilities of, shall we say, the still-fluid McCain agenda unrooted (unhindered?) by too many defining (limiting?) particulars.

Take Mr. McCain's rhetoric on patriotism and self-government. The lovely and lofty speechifying "cynicism threatens to become a ceiling on our greatness" remains untethered to the pertinent and vital issues it could (and should) be deeply grounded in, leaving it weightless and vague. Mr. McCain somehow fails to connect the dots between inspirational rhetoric and our perilous reality, failing to highlight the kinds of policies that, for example, bear on our lack of cohesion as a people (such as repealing racial preferences, or better assimilating new immigrants), or those that are linked to our increasing, and increasingly dangerous, tendencies to shrink from self-government (such as restraining an overbearing judiciary).

But maybe it is precisely such imprecision that keeps the hearts of those winsome Democrats and independent voters fluttering. And, just as important, maybe it also allows some Republicans to hope for the best. That is, while Americans of every political creed honor Mr. McCain's resilience and courage as a Vietnam-era POW, a Republican may seize on the Arizona senator's standard-issue conservative record in Congress, while a Democrat is perhaps dazzled by his left-leaning stances on taxation or health care taken on the campaign highway.

Mr. McCain may tout his much-vaunted plan for campaign-finance reform as a surefire way to return power to the people a rousing call to one and all while it would seem to promise only to enhance the regulatory powers of the federal bureaucracy. A conservative may take comfort in the fact that, particularly now as Republicans-only primaries loom, Mr. McCain trumpets himself a Reagan Republican (he is said to be seeking Nancy Reagan's endorsement), while a liberal may find solace in the Clintonian rhetoric of class warfare with which Mr. McCain seems to have rejected Mr. Reagan's tax-cutting philosophy.

No wonder some of us are confused. But again, perhaps that is part of Mr. McCain's appeal: The possibilities remain endless. By contrast, all those beautifully reasoned, neatly stacked and practically be-ribboned position papers put out by the Bush campaign begin to look mundane in their attention to detail. No imagination. You know same old, same old. All of which is to say, there is a flip side to the McCain mystique, which is very unconservative indeed: namely, simple novelty. But it is a fact: The son of a recent president seems more familiar, and more likely to draw on a familiar pool of people than even a Washington fixture like John McCain, a 17-year member of Congress. That, of course, matters to few beyond Washington.

The implications of the one man's apparent novelty and the other man's apparent familiarity resonate further afield. Writing in the Wall Street Journal, Peggy Noonan brilliantly framed the Republican choice as being "the clash of two mythic American archetypes, the Flyboy and the Boss's Son" namely, the perhaps erratic flash and heroism of Mr. McCain vs. the solidly dependable and likable Mr. Bush. Which is the man for our time? That decision is left, of course, to the girl, whom Ms. Noonan casts as Republican voters.

Meanwhile, in the green-sea murkiness of John McCain's political philosophy, his supporters still see beautiful shadows, sometimes even their own. Of course, maybe any quest to seek out a McCain philosophy is a little silly; maybe his political genius will prove to be that he is neither Reagan Republican nor Rockefeller Republican, but something else again something that for the moment might best be described as a Rorschach Republican.

As this campaign continues, thrilling voters as no campaign has for two decades, the real John McCain, beyond the heroic biography, the campaign surge, and the "reforms," will undoubtedly crystallize. Or so we hope. As the Weekly Standard's ever-crystallizing William Kristol recently wrote in The Washington Post, "If McCain is the nominee, he will have to give shape to the inchoate movement he finds himself leading, and content to the embryonic message he is grappling to articulate." That, of course, would be a good start.

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