McCain went to places Republicans don't usually go, and proposed a series of informal debates that represented a departure from what presidential candidates usually do ... but when it came to those policy speeches, he didn't seem interested in taking big risks or making hard choices, and this no doubt affected how (and how often) the press covered his campaign. In their first races for the presidency, both George W. Bush and Bill Clinton promised to take their parties in new directions, and both offered substance to back these promises up; the press treated them like new-model candidates because there was actually good reason to think that they were. McCain, by contrast, has promised to take his party in a new direction, but the centerpiece of his reform agenda is ... cutting earmarks. Maybe that's a laudable goal, but "compassionate conservatism" or "ending welfare as we know it" it sure isn't, and you can't fool reporters into thinking that it is.
It's passe, at this point, to say that McCain's reform agenda is toothless. But it's not only toothless, it's parodical. McCain is actually going to reinforce the worst elements of the Republican Party, while killing the odd earmark here and there. It's a joke. McCain could have actually pursued some reform and modernization of the Republican Party. He could have, for example, ended the tax cut mania and made balanced budgets and effective government the new standards of the GOP. He could have said that he'd appoint X number of Democrats to his cabinet, and that he would hire more cabinet officers like Hank Paulson and Bob Gates and fewer like Mukasey, Gonzales, or Ashcroft. He could have made an expertise argument, he could have pursued a "Sam's Club Republican" strategy, he could have, he could have. He could have pursued nearly infinite paths to reforming the GOP. But he didn't.
Why is this? It gets at why McCain is a poor choice for President: he just doesn't care about most aspects of U. S. policy. He's assuredly not a wonk, and even in his pet areas he often flubs facts. How many times has he messed up Sunni and Shi'a? Foreign policy is supposed to be one of his strengths! He can't hide that he could give a damn about healthcare policy. His interest in being president seems largely that he's interested in going down in history as a wartime president whose steely reserve etc., etc., greatest since Lincoln.
So, given this, why wouldn't McCain adopt a "one more heave" approach to winning this election? He's neither engaged in the specifics of policy, nor is this Goldwater Republican particularly interested in a government that works. He's going to be a foreign policy president first and foremost if he wins. This might be why Republicans settled on the guy: they sensed that the hellraising McCain of 2000 had given way to the let-sleeping-dogs-lie McCain of 2008, who has become so desperate to make his mark in some way that he was willing to give in to the right wing. But is this leadership? And will the Republicans thank McCain for this if he somehow does get elected? In the short term, maybe, but McCain would be paving the way for an even more intense political obscurity for the Republicans if he won an election that by rights ought to have gone to the other side and then continued to pursue policies that the public was tired of. What we're talking about is called vision, and nobody could accuse McCain of having it. Maybe pressing for real reform might have unnecessarily split up the party now. Maybe that's inevitable. But the Republicans expected to lose this one anyway. Wouldn't it have been better to try now, and take a better chance than running a sleazy, dishonest campaign and picking an unqualified token for veep, all the while trashing your reputation and honor with the people who basically gave you a career (the media)?
McCain had the opportunity to really leave a legacy for his party, and instead he opted for the easy way out and tried to put a Palin and Rove sized band aid over his party's problems. Time will tell if it works. I don't think it will.