McCain Real Change Candidate?

David Brooks invokes the late Mancur Olsen to explain why egregiously bad legislation like the recent farm and energy bills — pork laden monstrosities that pretty much everyone agrees are bad public policy — easily pass into law.

He then shifts to the presumptive November contest between John McCain and Barack Obama.

Barack Obama talks about taking on the special interests. This farm bill would have been a perfect opportunity to do so. But Obama supported the bill, just as he supported the 2005 energy bill that was a Christmas tree for the oil and gas industries.

Obama’s vote may help him win Iowa, but it will lead to higher global food prices and more hunger in Africa. Moreover, it raises questions about how exactly he expects to bring about the change that he promises.

If elected, Obama’s main opposition will not come from Republicans. It will come from Democratic leaders on Capitol Hill. Already, the Democratic machine is reborn. Lobbyists are now giving 60 percent of their dollars to Democrats, according to the Center for Responsive Politics. The pharmaceutical industry, the defense industry and the financial sector all give more money to Democrats than Republicans. If Obama is actually going to bring about change, he’s going to have to ruffle these sorts of alliances. If he can’t do it in an easy case like the farm bill, will he ever?

John McCain opposed the farm bill. In an impassioned speech on Monday, he declared: “It would be hard to find any single bill that better sums up why so many Americans in both parties are so disappointed in the conduct of their government, and at times so disgusted by it.”

McCain has been in Congress for decades, but he has remained a national rather than a parochial politician. The main axis in his mind is not between Republican and Democrat. It’s between narrow interest and patriotic service. And so it is characteristic that he would oppose a bill that benefits the particular at the expense of the general.

In fact, in this issue, McCain may have found a theme to unify his so far scattershot campaign. He has always been an awkward ideological warrior. In any case, this year may not be the best year for Republicans to launch a right versus left crusade. But McCain has infinitely better grounds than Obama to run as a do-what-it-takes reformer.

Of course, the collective action problem hasn’t been solved. So, while most people might agree with McCain on this one, they’re unlikely to do much about it. Meanwhile, those who benefit from government subsidies care a whole lot and have the resources to back those who support continuing said subsidies.

It’s is ironic, though, that the candidate of “change” is in favor of the status quo here while the old coot with “half a century of experience” is the one bucking the tide.

UPDATE: The Times has issued the following correction: “The column by David Brooks on Tuesday said incorrectly that Senator Barack Obama voted last week for the farm bill. Mr. Obama did not cast a vote on the bill; he supported it.” The analysis remains unchanged, methinks.

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James Joyner
About James Joyner
James Joyner is Professor and Department Head of Security Studies at Marine Corps University's Command and Staff College and a nonresident senior fellow at the Scowcroft Center for Strategy and Security at the Atlantic Council. He's a former Army officer and Desert Storm vet. Views expressed here are his own. Follow James on Twitter @DrJJoyner.


  1. anjin-san says:

    McCain is “bucking the tide”? How many lobbyists has he been forced to dump from his campaign in the last month? How many dictators has his bud Charlie Black worked for?

    Out of the way folks, the Lobbyist Express is coming through!

  2. jeff b says:

    Jimmy Carter correctly perceived that the Bureau of Reclamation was an antiquated boondoggle which was actively harming the small farmers it was created to promote. He tried to get rid of it, and it was a political disaster. His presidency never recovered.

    I expect John McCain, if elected, to sign every farm bill that comes along, without so much as a peep of protest.

  3. anjin-san says:

    Interesting observation about Carter. It is also worth noting that he warned us about the threat dependence on oil presented to our national security, and he was the steward of the only really meaningful step towards peace in the middle east to date.

    Carter surely had his faults as a leader, but one has to wonder how he would have fared if he had inherited a stronger hand and not the one left by 8 years of poor leadership that preceded him.

  4. legion says:

    I can’t really put it any better than Obama himself did in his speech earlier tonight:

    But this year’s Republican primary was a contest to see which candidate could out-Bush the other, and that is the contest John McCain won. The Bush tax cuts for the wealthiest 2% of Americans that once bothered Senator McCain’s conscience are now his only economic policy. The Bush health care plan that only helps those who are already healthy and wealthy is now John McCain’s answer to the 47 million Americans without insurance and the millions more who can’t pay their medical bills. The Bush Iraq policy that asks everything of our troops and nothing of Iraqi politicians is John McCain’s policy too, and so is the fear of tough and aggressive diplomacy that has left this country more isolated and less secure than at any time in recent history. The lobbyists who ruled George Bush’s Washington are now running John McCain’s campaign, and they actually had the nerve to say that the American people won’t care about this. Talk about out of touch!

    I will leave it up to Senator McCain to explain to the American people whether his policies and positions represent long-held convictions or Washington calculations, but the one thing they don’t represent is change.

    I can’t wait to see what the “Straight Talk Express” has in response to that…

  5. capital L says:

    Fingers in ears, “NYAH NYAH NYAH,” seems to be the tactic deployed above.

  6. Jeffrey W. Baker says:

    James, you might want to run another post on your blog on this topic. The Times today ran a correction to Brooks’ column, noting that, contrary to what Brooks says, and contrary to what you quoted above, Obama did not vote for the farm bill.

  7. James Joyner says:

    James, you might want to run another post on your blog on this topic. The Times today ran a correction to Brooks’ column, noting that, contrary to what Brooks says, and contrary to what you quoted above, Obama did not vote for the farm bill.

    I’ve added the correction. But Obama just didn’t bother to show up to vote: He’d voiced his support for the bill.