The return of the Mayberry Machiavellis

THE RETURN OF THE MAYBERRY MACHIAVELLIS…. Ross Douthat makes an interesting observation about how the McCain campaign approached policy issues, or in its case, doesn’t.

One of the many fascinating things about Robert Draper’s Times Magazine story on the McCain campaign is what isn’t included in its account of the attempts to brand (and rebrand, and rebrand) John McCain’s candidacy: Namely, any real discussion of policy. From Draper’s account, the McCain campaign staff has gone around and around trying to figure out how to sell their candidate — as a fighter! as an experienced leader! as a maverick! etc. — but hardly ever seemed to have spent much time thinking about how these narratives would mesh with or be reinforced by the actual policy agenda the campaign was advancing.

Think about what we’re supposed to expect from a McCain administration. What is it that he really wants to do if elected to the presidency? He offers a lot of vague rhetoric about “reforming” things, but no one’s sure what that means.

Seriously, after two full years of campaigning, does McCain even have a policy agenda? McCain spends a lot of time making personal attack against Obama, but off the top of your head, try to name three big, unique policy ideas that McCain takes seriously and wants to implement. It’s surprisingly difficult.

McCain seems to like coastal drilling — which he opposed up until fairly recently — but that wouldn’t affect the marketplace for a decade. McCain seems to like Bush’s tax cuts for the wealthy — which he also opposed up until fairly recently — but that’s just a continuation of the last eight years. McCain seems to like Bush’s Iraq policy, but that’s also just more of the same. He seems to hate earmarks quite a bit — despite the earmarks he’s requested as a long-time Washington insider — but since they constitute a tiny fraction of the budget, it’s hardly a consequential policy proposal.

If all of this sounds familiar, there’s a very good reason.

In an interview with Esquire magazine, [John J. DiIulio Jr., a domestic policy advisor to George W. Bush] said: ”There is no precedent in any modern White House for what is going on in this one: a complete lack of a policy apparatus. What you’ve got is everything, and I mean everything, being run by the political arm. It’s the reign of the Mayberry Machiavellis.”

The two are identical. Bush and McCain have sought power for power’s sake.

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Steve Benen

Steve Benen is a producer at MSNBC's The Rachel Maddow Show. He was the principal contributor to the Washington Monthly's Political Animal blog from August 2008 until January 2012.