John McCain and Sarah Palin are vowing "reform" and "change" if they get to the White House. Barack Obama and Joe Biden are promising the same. What does each team mean by "change," which voters began demanding months ago?
McCain has sided with President Bush on most of the significant issues of the past eight years from continuing the war in Iraq to making Bush’s tax cuts permanent and not expanding the children’s health program. So he is not seeking as much to make major changes in policy — except to combat global warming and end torture of suspected terrorists — as much as he wants to change the culture of Washington.
Although McCain has been there as a legislator since 1983, he said that as president he would have the force of the bully pulpit he didn’t have as a congressman and senator to fight against earmarks (money for home state projects that is not specifically voted on), special interests, and the corrupting power of money in politics.
That is a major reason McCain chose Palin to be a heartbeat away from being president if he wins when his friend Joe Lieberman, the iconoclastic, independent senator from Connecticut, was vetoed at the last minute by party elders who feared chaos at the convention if McCain embraced an erstwhile Democrat.
Lieberman and McCain agree that Washington is broken and needs emergency care and now so does Palin, a fresh face in politics seen as a maverick in Alaska. Lieberman told GOP delegates that Palin is a leader who will help McCain "shake up Washington."
Although she has spent no time in Washington and she once supported the infamous $400 million Bridge to Nowhere in Alaska and got $24 million in earmarks for her hometown of Wasilla, Alaska, she fought tooth-and-nail against corruption and the establishment in her 20 months as governor.
One caveat to remember when McCain and Palin vow change is that they would almost certainly have to work with a Democratic-controlled Congress, with a larger majority of Democrats after the election in both the House and the Senate than there is now. When he advocated campaign finance reform, McCain was thwarted by many in his own party. As the saying goes, the president proposes, Congress disposes.
A nasty, partisan general-election campaign would not be conducive to the bipartisan atmosphere Lieberman said McCain would bring to the White House. McCain has vowed to cut federal spending but has not said how, and in that case the devil is in the details.
When Obama, who has been in Washington three and a half years, and Biden, who became a senator at the age of 30 in 1973 and has been chairman of the Senate Judiciary and Foreign Policy Committees, vow a different sort of change.
They want to end the war in Iraq, not extend Bush’s tax cuts, create universal health care coverage by 2012, form new coalitions with other nations, rewrite the No Child Left Behind Act, raise fuel efficiency standards and spend more on alternative sources of energy.
But as a relative newcomer to Washington, Obama would run into the same problems that confronted Bill Clinton, who was frustrated at the glacial pace of the bureaucracy and the power of special interest groups and lobbyists.
McCain’s senior adviser Steve Schmidt made headlines when he said that the November election will not be about issues but about how the candidates are perceived. Obama immediately leaped on that, scoffing that voters are too intelligent to choose personality over substance.
But GOP ads have been painting him as "not ready" and "too liberal" and vilifying his "eloquence." Democrats counter that Palin is inexperienced, didn’t have a passport until 2007 and won’t have time to get up to speed on nuances of foreign policy.
As for changing the culture it should be noted that corporations, wealthy donors and unions poured millions of dollars into the conventions in St. Paul and Denver. In other words, despite McCain’s "change you can believe in" and Obama’s "it’s time for us to change America," so far it has been campaign business as usual.
(Scripps Howard columnist Ann McFeatters has covered the White House and national politics since 1986. E-mail amcfeatters(at)nationalpress.com.)