John McCain built up massive popularity among American voters with his populist opposition to swindlers, liars and thieves, whether in business, Congress, labor or the defense community. His take-no-prisoners attitude toward corruption and his willingness to battle it wherever it crops up has made him an icon among our political leaders.
But in 2008, that John McCain has been under wraps as he catered to the Republican electorate.
Only the Arizona senator’s opposition to terrorism — to be sure, a real part of his agenda — was on display. His populism was anesthetized under a blanket of conformity and positive boosterism.
After he won the nomination, it seemed that he would continue fighting the Republican primaries forever. Bowing to the dictate to make peace with the fiscal conservatives who opposed him, he kept his sword sheathed and his mouth shut.
But this week, the old John McCain began to re-emerge. Articulating what tens of millions of Americans feel, he blamed the “greedy” of Wall Street for causing the current economic problems. He noted that it was their insatiable desire to get rich quick that led to the sub-prime frenzy that undermined sound economic growth and created a speculative bubble that had to burst. And he said that, as always, it is the little guy who will pay the price when a recession hits, while the greedy who caused it make out, well, like bandits.
This is precisely the kind of populist rhetoric that John McCain needs to embrace to have a chance to win the general election. He has got to draw a sharp distinction between himself and the stewards of Wall Street and side with Main Street in their battle against easy wealth and special privilege. By flanking the Democrats on the front of economic and social populism, McCain can be himself and can win.
Obama is making the social populist case against himself stronger with each passing day. His condemnation of small-town America and his elitist dismissal of religion, anti-immigration concerns and hunting as evidence of bitterness and the need for easy solutions was awful. Obama is, of course, right that trade protectionism and racial discrimination do, indeed, have their roots in bitterness and the need to scapegoat others for one’s own problems and shortcomings. But religion, concerns about immigration, and the sports of hunting and fishing hardly belong in the same category.
Through his own words, and those of his good reverend, Obama is painting himself into an Ivy League ghetto reminiscent of that which kept Mike Dukakis imprisoned for the campaign.