House Party

It’s a tale of two houses. One is dilapidated, old. Everyone in the neighborhood is used to it, and they turn away when they pass. A series of people lived in it and failed to take care of it. It’s run down, needs paint. The roof sags, squirrels run through the eaves. A haunted house! No, more boring. Just a house someone . . . let go.

But over here, a new house on a new plot. It’s rising from the mud before your eyes. It has interesting lines, a promising façade, and when people walk by they stop and look. So much bustle! Builders running in and out, the contractors fighting with each other—“You wouldn’t even have this job if it weren’t for the minority set-aside!” And everyone hates the architect, who put a port-o-potty on the lawn.

But: You can’t take your eyes off it. “Something being born, and not something dying.” Maybe it will improve the neighborhood. Maybe the owners will be nice.

If the old house is the Republicans and John McCain, and the new house is the Democrats and their presidential candidates, or at least one of them, what can Mr. McCain do? How can he better his position? What can he do to help his house?

You know what he has in his favor. He’s gentleman Johnny McCain, hero, maverick. He has more knowledge on national defense in his pinky than the others will have, after four years in the White House, in their entire bodies. He’s the one who should be answering the phone at 3 a.m. But “This is no country for old men.” He feels like the past. He paints himself as George W. Bush’s third term. Who wants that? Mr. Bush himself just wants the brown, brown grass of home.

The base is tired. Republicans feel their own kind of unease at Bush-Clinton-Bush-Clinton. Talk about wanting to stand athwart history yelling stop. They’re not in a mood to give money. Remember the phrase “broken glass Republicans?” The number of Republicans so offended, so wounded, actually, as citizens, by the Clinton years, that they’d crawl across broken glass to elect George Bush? They existed in 2004, too. Now a lot of them wouldn’t crawl across a plush weave carpet to vote for a Republican. They’re looking around. Look at that new house they’re building . . .

What can Mr. McCain do, right now? He might start with a little refurbishing of himself. A good friend of his told me Mr. McCain’s number one problem is “a lack of discipline.” Mr. McCain is up at 6 a.m. and works it hard ’til midnight, but he lacks “discipline of the mind.” He defined this as “not thinking about the answer to the question, not being serious, just popping off. He does it in part to charm and amuse the press. Before this is over they’ll kill him with it.” Former Sen. Phil Gramm, he said, is the only person around Mr. McCain who has the “heft” to get him to focus. Everyone else is in awe, or loves him too much, or doesn’t see the problem. But it’s crucial, he said, that Mr. McCain embrace a new seriousness—no more “Bomb, bomb, bomb, bomb, bomb Iran,” no more Hey, we could be there for a hundred years.

The friend said he thought Mr. McCain is showing a certain “complacency” because he’s already got what he wanted. “He’s got Bush’s people bowing, he’s got the conservatives coming back, the establishment bowing. He’s satisfied. He’s finally got it!” But you have to want the presidency or the people won’t give it to you. You have to fight for it. I asked if Mr. McCain really wanted it, really hungered. He shrugged. He didn’t know.

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Everything the friend said pinged off things I’ve observed of the McCain campaign. I’d add this. One always wonders with Mr. McCain: What exactly does he feel passionately about, what great question? Or rather, what does he stand for, really? For he often shows passion, but he rarely speaks of meaning. The issues that summon his full engagement are issues on which he’s been challenged by his party and others. McCain, to McCain, 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.

Issues removed from his personal drama, from the saga of John McCain, don’t seem to capture his interest to any deep extent.

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He has positions, but a series of separate, discrete and seemingly unconnected stands do not coherence make. Mr. McCain, in public, does not dig down to the meaning of things, to why he stands where he stands, to what understanding of life drives his political decisions. But voters hunger for coherence, for a philosophical thread that holds all the positions together.

Where Mr. McCain’s friend says, “be disciplined,” I’d say, “Get serious.” What is the meaning of things? What is the guiding philosophy? Who has he read besides Hemingway? (And he’s read him—he loves him to an almost scary degree.) Is there a little Burke in there? The Federalist papers? John Kenneth Galbraith?

On Iraq, for instance. The surge has worked, but what has it worked to do? Has it made us safe to be there 20 years? Is that good? Why are we there? Were we right to go in? What overall view of the world, of strategy, of American meaning, is being expressed in Iraq? Who are we in the world? What do we mean to do in the 21st century? And in what way does this connect to a philosophical view of life, of the meaning of being here on earth as Americans?

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.

Philosophy is the foundation. All the rest is secondary, a quick one-coat paint job on a house with a sagging roof.

If Mr. McCain got serious and told us how he views life, and politics, and America’s purpose in the world, people just may start to look at the old house again, see it new. Who knows, maybe with work it could be turned into a mansion.