John McCain hit the "reform" theme hard in his speech last night, and I couldn't help but wonder: What does McCain actually plan to change about government? I get that Sarah Palin is a nice person and doesn't like sleaze—except when she's hitting up corporate donors on behalf of Ted Stevens or hiring earmark lobbyists for her hometown... No, but seriously: Back in 2000, McCain could reasonably claim to be a "reform" candidate by touting his campaign finance bill—he had a specific proposal to address a concrete problem. As it turns out, McCain-Feingold didn't alter the role of money in politics in any fundamental way, and the issue's still there for the taking, but the Republican base is intransigent on this subject, and McCain's not poking that bear again. So what does that leave?
Okay, he hates congressional earmarks, and he's promised to veto the first pork-laden bill that crosses his desk. Except that, as Jon Chait pointed out, whenever McCain's been challenged on specific earmarks that are actually popular, he's backed off—as when he met an ovarian cancer patient in Pennsylvania being treated in an earmark-funded clinical trial program. And his campaign has suggested he wouldn't even object to that much-mocked bear DNA project in Montana, as long as the "process" is clean. So he'll issue veto threats over some earmarks—the "bad" ones—which will affect less than 1 percent of the budget. (And even getting rid of earmarks wouldn't necessarily save taxpayers any money, since it would just mean that federal agencies, rather than Congress, decide how the funds are allocated.)
What about cleaning up the executive branch? We could look at all the ways the Bush administration has let hacks, cronies, and industry lobbyists infiltrate every level of government. Would McCain chart a different course? How? Is he going to fire every last one of Bush's appointees? McCain doesn't seem to have trouble letting lobbyists run his campaign—he only started scuttling some of the shadier types when the press pointed out that he was being a tad hypocritical. More broadly, does McCain think it was inappropriate when Bush appointed drug-industry lobbyists to key positions at the FDA, HHS, and elsewhere? Would McCain also stock key regulatory positions with people plucked from the very industries that are supposed to be overseen? His website is maddeningly vague about all this, save McCain's distaste for the "revolving door" whereby lawmakers leave their posts and join lobbying firms. Oh, and he wants an independent ethics office for Congress and more disclosure of travel receipts—noble, but minor.
Or how about this: Charlie Savage reported in The New York Times last week that the White House political affairs office recently told the rest of the executive branch to find jobs for 108 "priority candidates" who had "loyally served the president." The Justice Department, meanwhile, has been stocked with unqualified movement conservatives, and its internship program was illegally politicized by Monica Goodling. Are McCain and Palin going to grab by the "scruff of the neck" all of those Republican loyalists in the federal government who got hired because of their fealty to Bush rather than their competence? As far as I can tell, McCain has never promised anything of the sort.
Maybe he'll change the way government helps people. True, most of his policies are warmed-over Bush-ism, apart from that (problematic) health care proposal. But, in his speech last night, McCain mentioned wage insurance as a way to cushion the blow for dislocated workers affected by globalization: "For workers in industries that have been hard-hit," he declared, "we'll help make up part of the difference in wages between their old job and a temporary, lower paid one, while they receive re-training that will help them find secure new employment at a decent wage." That's a solid, liberal idea. Except that McCain has rarely mentioned this idea before; there isn't a concrete proposal on his website anywhere, as best I can tell; and it's the sort of thing that would require new government spending, not the budget cuts he's promising. Odds are, this isn't even a serious proposal at all. So what does that leave us?
P.S.: In comments, Rhubarbs reminds us of a similar content-free line from George W. Bush's convention speech in 2000: "Tonight, in this hall, we resolve to be, not the party of repose, but the party of reform."