Peggy Noonan turns in another characteristically perceptive "Declaration" for Saturday's Wall Street Journal--though one with uncharacteristically hokey imagery about a new house (Obama) and an old house (McCain). But her advice to the Arizona Senator is well worth heeding: "get serious."
In the most successful political careers there is a purpose, a guiding philosophy. Not an ideology--ideology is something imposed from above, something abstract dreamed up by an intellectual. Philosophy isn't imposed from above, it bubbles up from the ground, from life. And its expression is missing with Mr. McCain. Political staffs inevitably treat philosophy as the last thing, almost an indulgence. But it's the central fact from which all else flows. Staffs turn each day to scheduling, advance, fundraising, returning the billionaire's phone call. They're quick to hold the meeting to agree on the speech on the economy. But they don't, can't, give that speech meaning and depth. Only the candidate can, actually.
Senator McCain, she argues, is "defined by his maverickness."
That's who he is. (It's the theme of his strikingly good memoir, "Worth the Fighting For.") He stands up to power. He faces them down. It's not only a self image, it's a self obsession. But it has left him seeming passionate only about those issues on which he's been able to act out his maverickness, such as campaign finance and immigration. He's passionate about McCain-Feingold because . . . because people don't understand how right he is, and how wrong they are. He's passionate not about immigration itself but about how he got his head handed to him when he backed comprehensive reform, about which he was right by the way. He's passionate about Iraq because America can't cut and run, as it did in Vietnam, to the subsequent heartbreak of good people, and heroes. But this is not philosophy, it's autobiography.
There's something to this. And it is indeed frustrating for those of us who like McCain--particularly think tank types who might be branded as "intellectuals"--because, if Noonan is right, there's not much we can do to help. "Only the candidate" can bring meaning to his campaign.
Flummoxed but not forlorn, if I can't help the Senator find "meaning," let me at least suggest that he extend his "maverickness" to education. He marquee issues all have something in common: they are immensely popular, they strike most people as sensible, and they are bitterly opposed by the Republican base. And what education issue better fits this bill than national standards and testing? (Though in its case, it appears to be popular even among "very conservative" voters (see here)-though not their interest-group "representatives" in Washington.)
A President McCain could say, "My fellow countrymen, we have an education system that is badly in need of fixing. Some of our schools are great, for sure, but too many aren't nearly good enough for our own children to, so why should we expect other people to send their children to them either? Now, we're a good and kind country and we've been busy trying to fix these schools for many years. And at the heart of our strategy is setting clear standards for what kids should know, testing regularly, and holding schools accountable for the results. But my friends, let's face it, these ???standards' we've been setting are a joke. They are different from state to state, they tend to be ridiculously easy, or vague, or full of fads. We're a great country. Can't our governors come together to develop a common set of expectations for students in reading, and math, and history, and science, so all of our students, from coast to coast, will have the same shared heritage, the same shot at living the American dream? Common standards won't fix all of our education problems but they'll go a long way. We don't need the federal government doing this--I want the states to take the lead. This is common sense, my friends, and we can do this, together."
That may not bring "meaning" to his campaign, but it could bring meaning to our education system. That's not a bad start for Maverick McCain.