One of the best-ever attention-getters used by a politician was Sen. William Proxmire’s Golden Fleece Awards. The iconic and dubious governmental achievements periodically lampooned by the Wisconsin Democrat became the talk of the nation for more than a decade. But it’s been two decades since any really significant politician picked up where Proxmire left off. (Yes, I know that one taxpayer advocacy group has tried, but it’s just not the same as when a sitting member of “The Club” calls out his colleagues.) I’m thinking that a revival of Proxmire’s Golden Fleece idea may be the perfect way for Sen. John McCainJohn McCainFather of slain Navy SEAL wants investigation A stronger NATO for a safer world Drug importation won't save dollars or lives MORE’s (R) presidential campaign to highlight the Arizona maverick’s distaste for pork-barreling, earmarks and other wasteful federal spending.
Yes, I know that wasteful spending by government is not necessarily high today on the electorate’s issue agenda. The economy and jobs, Iraq and terrorism, healthcare, immigration and even taxes all seem to rate higher in polls asking for unaided recall of the nation’s biggest problems. But as my esteemed colleague in polling, Democrat Mark Mellman, once instructed me, “When the agenda isn’t working to your advantage, then you simply have to alter the agenda.” By latching onto Proxmire’s golden gimmickry, a legend could be reborn. The attention that Proxmire’s Fleece Awards focused on government waste made the issue of stupid spending soar in the polls. McCain has just the personality to milk this idea all over again for another shakeup in the poll-defined issue agenda.
To make the issue truly relevant, McCain would have to leverage existing concerns. For example, if he could highlight the expenses of federal bureaucrats that enforce mindless and job-killing regulations that punish employers, voters would listen. If he could demonstrate how federal regulations can actually make healthcare more expensive, not more affordable, he’d be guaranteed an audience. If he could point out how the Democrats’ oversight efforts in Iraq and Afghanistan have sometimes cost more than they saved, let’s assume the American public would listen.
McCain would also need to highlight historic Democratic spending splurges when their authority had neither check nor balance. Some “remember back when?” Fleece Awards would add new meaning to the concept of “golden oldies.”
The presumptive Republican nominee might also consider exploiting fiscal federalism. Causes that some Democrats in Congress have been unable to achieve because of the Republican presidential veto are now being taken up by state legislative Democrats and Democratic governors. Some states are trying to create so-called “universal healthcare” on a single state-by-state basis. Other states are establishing new and expensive environmental regulations that threaten key national industries like autos. Democrat-controlled state budgets are once again bloated with big-government programs, giving John McCain case-study examples of what the Democrats would do if given control of the national legislative and executive branches.
McCain may have more material to work with this fall, especially in initiative and referendum states. Because there is a notion that the forthcoming November electorate will be the most liberal in decades, self-described “progressive” interest groups are laying plans to pass ballot measures that would be unthinkable at a midterm election. Among those state measures, I suspect McCain will find a few Golden Fleece nominees.
One old story that drives liberals wild is the one about the mythical $500 hammer that some government procurement process begat. Liberals say it was just another urban myth, along with the $50 ashtray. They may be right. But as an opinion researcher, I know that ordinary Americans believe the $500 hammer story. So if perception is reality, John McCain would be well-advised to give that hammer a few whacks.
Hill is director of Hill Research Consultants, a Texas-based firm that has polled for GOP candidates and causes since 1988.