WASHINGTON -- Last August, John McCain's campaign was a guttering candle, out of money but flush with half-baked ideas that were unlikely to be improved by further baking. Anyway, to have many ideas is to have too many for a campaign's concluding sprint, and McCain's revival has not been robust enough to bring him even with Barack Obama. Now McCain's rejuvenated hopes rest on his ability to recast this election, focusing it on who should lead America in a world suddenly darkened by Russia's war of European conquest.
To begin the recasting, he should weed from the unkempt garden of his political thinking the populism which often seems like mere attitudinizing redeemed by insincerity. His silliness about sinful Wall Street and exploitative corporations cannot compete with Democratic entrees in the nonsense sweepstakes. Furthermore, his populism subverts his strength -- the perception that although he is an acquired taste, he is serious, hence incapable of self-celebratory froth such as "we are the ones we've been waiting for."
McCain's populism, if such there must be, should be distilled into one proposal that would be popular and, unlike most populism, not economically injurious. The proposal, for which he has expressed sympathy, is: No officer of any corporation receiving a federal subsidy, broadly defined, can be paid more than the highest federal civil servant ($124,010 for a GS-15). This would abruptly halt the galloping expansion of private economic entities -- is GM next? -- eager to become, in effect, joint ventures with Washington.
Next, McCain should make an asset of an inevitability by promising two presidential vetoes. The inevitability is enlarged Democratic congressional majorities in 2009. Americans suffer political astigmatism. They squint at Washington, seeing an incompetent cornucopia that is too big but which should expand to give them more blessings. Their voting behavior, however, generally conforms to their professed suspicion about unchecked power in Washington: In 31 election cycles since the restoration of normal politics after the Second World War, 19 of them produced divided government -- the executive and legislative branches not controlled by the same party.