St. Paul, Minnesota
As our communication system speeds up, driven by the power of cable television and the Internet, news cycles take on characteristics of a tropical storm: swirling centripetal winds, sudden shifts of intensity and direction, a tendency to darken the horizon and blot out memory, or awareness of anything else that might be happening. Participants—news purveyors and consumers—are always in the eye of the storm. So there was rough justice in the arrival of Gustav, a real hurricane, to rain on a Republican National Convention taking place under sunny skies 1,300 or so miles up the Mississippi. Real as it was, for news junkies, Gustav was only the fourth media storm in a week.
First came Media Storms Hillary and Invesco Field, packing plenty of wind and questions momentous-seeming enough to build suspense. (A media storm requires an open-ended question to keep anchors talking and bloggers blogging.) Would Mrs. Clinton’s speech for Barack Obama at the Democratic convention be sufficiently tinged with insincerity to alienate her supporters from the candidate? Would his acceptance speech before a crowd of 84,000 on a football field, in front of a set that might have been borrowed from the TV show The West Wing, make him seem less presidential?
“Not really” was the answer in each case but before it could register the questions had been shoved aside as a new one loomed: Could a caribou-hunting mother of five, with creationist leanings and membership in a church that preaches that these are “the last days” and that God has chosen as a “refuge” the state of which she’s a first-term governor—and maybe also chosen her to play that role—put enough verve into John S. McCain’s campaign to redeem, at a single stroke, his reputation for independence and his sorry standing with social conservatives? A perfect media question that had been daringly sent aloft by McCain himself, instantly eclipsing Obama’s big night. The first episode of Media Storm Sarah lasted less then forty-eight hours, then Gustav came along.
The real storm passed without furnishing the images of private greed and public lassitude that made Katrina an enduring symbol of the Bush administration’s aloofness and incompetence. George W. Bush’s party, spared the embarrassment of having to welcome him and his vice president to its convention, made a solemn show of transforming itself for one evening into a social service organization, filling its party hats with contributions for the hurricane’s victims. Gradually then, the Gulf was left to dry out and the political surge resumed, only now the story line John McCain and his advisers had scripted had suddenly changed on them. From a remake of Mr. Smith Goes to Washington, with the Alaska governor as heroine—a feisty battler against corruption in her own party, in McCain’s reformist image—it threatened to turn into Juno, last year’s sentimental comedy about a pregnant high school student who cheerfully decides to have her baby.
That the seventy-two-year-old’s choice of Sarah Palin as a possible successor had been deeply irresponsible by any standard of governance seemed to matter to only a few Republican dissenters. (“If it were your decision, and you were really putting your country first,” asked David Frum, the former Bush speechwriter turned blogger and think tank gadfly, “would you put an untested small-town mayor a heartbeat away from the presidency?”) What mattered now, as the convention resumed, was whether McCain could regain control of what’s known in the political consultants’ game as “the narrative.”
“A week is a long time in politics,” Harold Wilson’s old maxim, needs updating for the Internet age. Make it seventy-two hours. In that perspective, the former fighter pilot’s seemingly impulsive gamble on Sarah Palin was a brilliant success. This never figured to be an enthusiastic convention. It was going to be “like a shotgun wedding,” a McCain staffer suggested to me, a couple of weeks before Governor Palin’s family situation made that an unfortunate analogy. For the social conservative base of the party and other Republicans on the right, here was the original RINO (an acronym standing for “Republican in Name Only”). Their downcast mood was captured by the moniker of an otherwise obscure Web site: getdrunkandvote4mccain.com. It wasn’t that these conservatives considered McCain a closet liberal; his lengthy voting record in favor of George Bush’s legislation mostly passed muster. It was that he was, by their lights, flagrantly, flamboyantly unpredictable and, when the mood was on him, righteously impervious to their righteous influence.
Here was the man who’d stood with Russ Feingold, the Wisconsin Democrat, on campaign finance reform; with Edward Kennedy, on immigration reform and a patient’s bill of rights; who’d denounced the Reverends Jerry Falwell and Pat Robertson as “agents of intolerance”; who’d voted against Bush’s proposed amendment to outlaw gay marriage and played a leading part in normalizing relations with Communist Vietnam (which then put his image on a small commemorative frieze at the spot in Hanoi where he was dragged out of a lake after his jet was shot out from under him in 1967); the man who brokered a bipartisan Senate compromise that doomed three of President Bush’s most conservative judicial nominations by preventing a rules change that would have made it possible for the majority his party then had in the Senate to cut off debate; who was disparaged as McKerry, on the suspicion that he’d briefly entertained John Kerry’s proposal four years ago that he join the Democratic ticket; who, even as the delegates were packing to come to St. Paul, had them worrying that he was going to try to shove Al Gore’s hitherto pro-choice Democratic running mate, Joe Lieberman, down their throats as this year’s Republican nominee for vice president, in a bid for independent votes.
Democrats find it necessary to blow a kiss McCain’s way before denouncing him, saying they honor his heroism and service. Some Republicans felt no such compunction. (Even today a handful of holdouts have posted a video on YouTube, now featured on Pat Buchanan’s Web site, that attempts to “swiftboat” McCain’s heart-wrenching account of his experience as a POW.) If all was not forgotten, much was forgiven the instant McCain introduced the pro-life mother of five, who’d recently shown herself true to her principles by giving birth to a Down syndrome baby, as the first female Republican candidate on a national ticket.
Sarah Palin was twenty-four when Ronald Reagan left office. She could be embraced as living proof, therefore, that the conservative movement has a future despite all the hand-wringing to be found among intellectuals like Frum who, in asking why their party remains stuck in the same old positions on health care, global warming, wage stagnation, and widening economic inequality, sometimes seem to be working on its advance obituary. In the view of the delegates—a whiter than usual collection of politicians, aspiring politicians, true believers, and hail fellows hoping to be well met—the answers to such troublesome questions could come later. Even if it was true that Sarah Palin had been spotted on one occasion in 1999 wearing a Pat Buchanan button, she was no throwback. She was fresh and new, a gift from none other than John McCain to a restive wing of the party that had been unable to advance any plausible national candidate from its own ranks.
The enthusiasm didn’t have to be orchestrated. On the afternoon she was announced, I was told, contributions amounting to $90,000 simply “walked in” to campaign headquarters in Phoenix, hardly an everyday occurrence. Close to $5 million was collected on line in the first twenty-four hours. Religious leaders like Richard Land of the Southern Baptist Convention eagerly offered their testimonies. Speaking at a forum held, with some incongruity, at an institute at the University of Minnesota named after that old liberal stalwart Hubert H. Humphrey, the minister said McCain had “done something inexplicable” for the mood of the religious right. “He hit a grand slam on that one,” he said.
I spoke to Randy Pullen, chairman of the Republican Party in McCain’s home state of Arizona, a longtime thorn in the senator’s side on the issue of illegal immigration who last year narrowly won his position in opposition to a candidate strongly backed by McCain. The mood at the grassroots was one of “elation,” he claimed. Local Republican offices in the state had been flooded with hundreds of calls “in a matter of an hour or two” from people offering to volunteer, or others saying they were reversing earlier decisions to drop their party registration. This is a wing of the Arizona party that cannot elect its candidates to statewide office or Congress, even when they win primaries, and that Senator McCain had brushed off repeatedly, the wing of the party that would have sat on its hands, if not walked out, had he given in to his reported inclination to choose Lieberman over the woman who was hailed as “the first Christian” to be mayor of Wasilla, Alaska (population 9,780 in the latest census estimate), after she defeated a Lutheran who never claimed to be born again.
Barry Goldwater, whose Senate seat McCain has occupied for twenty-one years, was sometimes caustic in his later years about the impact of “that religious bunch” on Republican politics. “I think all good Christians should kick Falwell in the ass,” he said. Once acclaimed as the apostle of modern conservatism, he would go unmentioned as a second Arizonan advanced to the Republican nomination.
What did it say about McCain’s judgment and steadiness that he could careen between a liberal apostate he knew well and a frontier salvationist he knew hardly at all who’s the opposite in most respects? On the easiest level of interpretation, it said that Peggy Noonan was wrong to worry last June that McCain didn’t really feel a need to win, that he “has already got what he wanted, he got what he needed, which was to be top dog in the Republican Party, the party that had abused him in 2000 and cast him aside.” It said (surprise!) he really does want to win, that he’d been persuaded, probably for the first time in his career, that he’d need every possible Republican vote no matter if he got a majority of independents.
Even after conspicuously trimming his earlier positions on immigration and tax cuts for the wealthy during the primary season, McCain remained the first Republican to emerge victorious from the primaries without the votes of a majority of registered members of his party who cast ballots. Drawing an analogy intended to show the steeliness of his candidate, a McCain operative told me that Obama had made a probably fatal mistake by not putting Hillary Clinton on his ticket. He recognized that having an unmoored former president hovering over the White House could prove to be a big problem but having such a problem, the McCain man said, would have been better for the Democrat than the defeat he now faced.
As a candidate bent on winning, McCain was content to stand on a platform far more rigid than he himself had ever been, or still really was, on issues such as abortion and immigration. In the 2000 primary race, McCain’s staff had to correct him when he told an editorial board that he wasn’t out to overturn Roe v. Wade. Although his anti-abortion voting record was consistent, he always said he favored exceptions in cases of rape, incest, or where the life of the mother was endangered. Now he accepts a no-exceptions plank, from which pro-life advocates excised a line that would have pledged an effort to reduce unwanted pregnancies, on grounds that it sounded suspiciously like Obama.
On immigration, the man who bravely championed legislation offering a path to citizenship for millions of illegal aliens now has to live with a platform that insists that any “amnesty” for illegality undermines the rule of law. All the candidate got in negotiations over the draft, I learned, was removal of a passage assailing the very idea of comprehensive immigration reform, an idea he has deferred but wasn’t yet ready to bury.
This candidate bent on winning stands also on a platform that has not a word to say about torture or “enhanced interrogation” or the future of the prison at GuantA!namo, even though just two summers ago the only member of the Senate ever to have been tortured was unmovable on these issues in three separate head-to-head meetings with Vice President Cheney. More recently he has been criticized for not supporting legislation that would extend to the CIA the rules on interrogation that are now supposed to bind the military. By contrast, the Democratic platform rejects torture at our own hands or in foreign prisons by any branch of the military or intelligence services, and promises to uphold habeas corpus and to shut down GuantA!namo and secret prisons designed to hold suspects beyond the reach of law.
On a level deeper than shifting political positions for short-term gain, the Palin selection speaks to the temperament of a man who, as a pilot over Hanoi, recognized that a SAM missile like “a flying telephone pole” was heading straight for his A4 fighter jet and that it was time to start evasive maneuvers. Instead, as he later wrote, he used those precious seconds to release his bombs on his target—a power plant—calculating that if he escaped the missile, he’d “never have had the time nor, probably, the nerve to go back in.” With a taste for risk that survived his grueling five and a half years as a POW, he has seldom come upon a casino that he hasn’t felt like entering.
When he got down to culling his shortlist, his advisers were finally able to persuade him that his friend Lieberman couldn’t be sold to the putative “base.” That left Mitt Romney, Governor Tim Pawlenty of Minnesota, and Sarah Palin. I asked someone who speaks regularly to McCain why Romney was eliminated and got a two-word answer: “Personal aversion.” Pawlenty, a symbol of what’s called “Sam’s Club Republicanism” (as distinct from country club), might then have been seen as the safe, conventional choice for a risk-adverse candidate. That was fatal. True to his instincts, McCain went the other way. (When the disappointed Pawlenty spoke to the convention in a time slot out of prime time, it was all too obvious that he’d have given the ticket no lift.)
Curt Davis, a political consultant from Flagstaff, Arizona, who’s a volunteer leader of the senator’s campaign there and a friend, had made a point of mentioning Sarah Palin every time he’d seen McCain since the senator wrapped up the nomination in February. Like the Alaska governor, Davis is evangelical in his convictions. But that wasn’t the root of his enthusiasm for her, he said. Though he’d never met her, he’d been following her career and had a strong feeling she could “connect” to the American people, better than any other governor. Davis didn’t rate as an adviser, he wanted me to understand, but he helped keep Palin’s name before the candidate. The Republican old guard from whom she distanced herself as governor, Senator Ted Stevens (now indicted) and Representative Don Young, were also targets of McCain on account of their appetite for legislative “earmarks,” which was another recommendation.
Obviously, she was from as far outside Washington as it was possible to be; and she could be marketed to younger voters and women while her United Steelworkers husband could be sent to the districts of Michigan and Pennsylvania where resistance to Obama among white workingmen is said to be hardening like yesterday’s wet cement. A political case could be made for putting her on the ticket, even if the argument for putting her in the White House would have to be invented.
After Bristol Palin’s pregnancy was dragged into public glare by the campaign in order to smother a wild Internet prairie fire pointing to Bristol as the actual mother of her own mother’s infant, the campaign spoke piously of the need to respect the young woman’s privacy. It then searched for ways to turn the media pack’s obsession with the pregnancy into a plus for the campaign. This was accomplished audaciously by having the young couple in the receiving line, in front of the campaign media pool, to be welcomed into the extended first family by a beaming John McCain on his arrival in St. Paul, a laying on of hands that prepared the way to what became almost an engagement party for the hand-holding couple on the convention’s neon-lit stage after Bristol’s mother gave her speech.
This struck secular commentators as a milestone for Republicans who not so long ago demonized the TV character Murphy Brown for having a fictional baby out of wedlock. Led by the evangelist James Dobson, who said earlier in the year that he couldn’t vote for McCain, the “base” now shone with Christian forgiveness. The Palins, Dobson said, “are in our prayers and those of millions of Americans.”
“Life happens,” a McCain campaign spokesman said. It was an American story in which millions of Americans would see their own reflection, said another. The nosy, gabby media were way out of line when they speculated about Palin family values. Anyone who can’t find a bit of amusement in such two-faced pieties should probably give up following politics, especially as played by Republicans on the presidential playing field.
Appropriating Obama’s theme of “change,” among others, and leaving the Democrat’s campaign looking flat-footed, McCain-Palin were then presented as the real agents of change, the real enemies of Big Oil, the true battlers for alternative sources of energy, the ones who would really shake up Washington. The campaign now had a firm grip on “the narrative.” Its stagecraft required highlighting John McCain’s lifetime as a man of action, while taking down Barack Obama as a man of empty words and no accomplishment, a “celebrity senator” as Rudolph Giuliani would put it. Palin herself would say in her acceptance speech, which was really her introduction to most of the country, that the Democrat had written two memoirs but no significant legislation. Although this line of attack hadn’t quite worked for Hillary Clinton during the primaries, she’d pointed the way. The Republicans went at it with gleeful abandon as delegates offered their estimate of Obama’s record by chanting, “Zero, zero, zero.”
On what was to have been the first night, George W. Bush arrived by video feed, for all of eight minutes, to deliver a panegyric on the man his campaign had traduced in South Carolina eight years earlier. The President seemed unable to suppress a small crooked smile through much of his delivery, a look that seemed to say that he relished the political game and the inescapable irony of his assigned task. What seemed heartfelt was his gratitude to Senator McCain for betting his political future on the success of the now-vaunted “surge” in Iraq.
This was then held up as a badge of McCain’s character by Joe Lieberman, who was obviously much more at home in these new surroundings than he will ever again be, it seems safe to predict, at a Democratic gathering. Taken to what’s called the next level, as it was by a slashing, sometimes sneering Giuliani the next evening, the message seemed to be that Barack Obama was not man enough to keep America safe, though Sarah Palin was. Slipping in and out of his Savonarola imitation, Giuliani said the Democrats were “in a state of denial” over the threat of Islamic terrorism, refusing even to use the term. “When they gave up on Iraq,” he said, “they had given up on America.” McCain, even if he lacked the executive experience of a former mayor that Sarah Palin had, would keep America “on offense against terrorism at home and abroad.”
That raised a couple of questions. One was: What happened to John McCain’s pledge of “civility” in the campaign? Another was: Did the Republicans really think they could now win the election on the issue of Iraq? Using McCain’s support for the surge as an index of character, independence, and strength is one thing. Having a plan for what to do about Iraq (not to mention Afghanistan) is another. Does McCain really mean to pledge support for an open-ended, ongoing military commitment at a continuing cost of lives and $10 billion a month? It seems so. (A monthly $10 billion, it so happens, which is on top of a regular defense budget that already accounts for more than half the discretionary funds at Congress’s disposal, and which he intends to enlarge in order to increase the armed forces by 20 percent.) John Kerry tried to draw such distinctions and failed with most white men in 2004. It remains to be seen whether Obama can succeed in putting across the notion that the war is still a problem in its wound-down state, one that still touches the lives of ordinary Americans, not to mention the lives of Iraqis and prospects for stability in the Middle East.
The Democratic platform says the United States under President Obama will make an orderly withdrawal of combat forces and not seek permanent bases in Iraq. The Bush administration, which is building in Baghdad what’s expected to be the largest American embassy in the world and which currently maintains sixty-one bases in Iraq and is now pressing to negotiate a far-reaching status-of-forces agreement with a reluctant Iraqi regime, chooses to be coy on the bases question, on which McCain is characteristically out front.
He may have been quoted out of context when he said in New Hampshire at the start of the year that it would be “fine” with him if we stayed in Iraq for a hundred years. But what he actually meant can be taken as a strong clue to his stand on permanent bases. He didn’t mean that he envisioned a hundred years’ war, only that he’d be prepared to maintain forces there the way we have for decades now in Germany and South Korea. So there’s a real policy difference, a matter of strategy, finally, rather than character. But anyone who assumes it can easily be made to work for the Democrats might do well to reflect on the election of 1972, which Nixon won in a landslide. Or the election of 2004.
Obama answers McCain’s attacks on him for failing to support the surge in Iraq by pointing out that if the aim is to battle al-Qaeda, Afghanistan remains the main theater of operations as, he argues, it should have been all along. Since the situation there is deteriorating, with the Taliban operating out of Pakistani border areas, with the shadowy assistance of the host country’s intelligence services, Afghanistan rather than Iraq was where Obama would have sent troops. Without acknowledging that the Democrat may have had a point, the Bush administration is now, so The New York Times reports, laying plans to shift an army brigade and a marine battalion from Iraq to Afghanistan at the end of the year.
That still leaves Obama with a problem for the campaign. He has yet to make clear how committed he thinks the United States needs to be to the goal of a stable Iraq, and whether he thinks a stable Iraq is even possible, given, among other factors, Iranian influence on parts of the governing coalition. He has argued that “the biggest beneficiary of our invasion of Iraq has been Iran.” He has yet to say what he’d do about it as president. Does he mean to disengage politically as well as militarily from Iraq? How long would he be prepared to go on bankrolling the regime he left behind? McCain’s answers can be reduced to simple one-word tag lines: strength, honor, victory. Obama’s more nuanced and careful pronouncements might get a higher grade in a seminar on the Middle East, but they are harder to recall.
In the deliberately bland, opaque language of policy papers on contentious issues, the Government Accountability Office said in June that the United States has no strategy for going beyond the surge. Iraq, the report said, is still failing to invest its oil wealth in rebuilding its infrastructure; basic services like clean water, electricity, and health care are still woefully short of what they were when the Americans entered the country as self-proclaimed liberators, even as daily assaults and casualties have declined; only 10 percent of Iraq’s security forces can operate without American backup; and all the core political issues about the division of power and oil wealth remain unresolved. A new strategy, the report concludes, would have to declare “goals, objectives, roles and responsibilities.”
In other words, a conflict that has already lasted more than five years and cost something like a trillion dollars remains a quagmire, even if it can be argued that our side has gained the upper hand for now. The Republicans gathered in St. Paul were assured that victory was “in sight,” which seemed to be good enough for them. The corollary that “victory” may require an unending commitment of forces and resources went unmentioned. Can Obama bring that up now without seeming to discredit the sacrifices of the troops? Is there a way to ask whether there are any limits? Is that even what this campaign is about? No, it’s about the economy, we’re told.
But the economy didn’t seem this week to be the chosen battleground of the strategists advising McCain. If the candidate had thought he could win on pocketbook issues, he might have been persuaded to overcome his dislike and choose Mitt Romney as his running mate. The former venture capitalist is at least fluent on the subject. The tin-ear Reagan imitation he tried to market in the primaries hadn’t proved persuasive but, back in Massachusetts, he’d shown he could play a centrist game in a general election; and he might have brought in Michigan, where he whipped McCain in the primary and his automaker father was governor long ago. By choosing Sarah Palin, McCain seemed to acknowledge that drilling for oil was his only promising economic issue. The delegates got the message. “Drill, baby, drill!” they chanted.
The Alaska governor’s voice sometimes sounded slightly shrill, but she delivered the well-turned lines that had been written for her with spirit and seeming poise when her star turn came. She’d won the convention’s heart before she opened her mouth. What the delegates now saw was a small, lithe figure on a distant platform and a big nervous smile on the outsized monitors over their heads. The smile became confident, even jaunty, as a chorus of insistent cheers filled the hall with each breath she drew.
I stood on the floor between the delegations from two states, one the Republicans will surely carry (Kansas), another they will surely lose (Massachusetts). The Kansans seemed enthralled. The New Englanders seemed to be doing their best. The reaction “out there” in the country remained unreadable but she was enjoying herself by the time she tossed off the gibe that being a small-town mayor was like being a community organizer with “actual responsibilities.” And her promise to go to Washington with “a servant’s heart” came across as a genuine vow, rather than a religious phrase slipped into a political speech as a signal to believers, as did her pledge to be an advocate for what are called special needs children.
Such grace notes were delivered cheerfully, as were her most cutting remarks about Obama; for instance, when she said the Democrat wanted to read terrorists captured overseas their rights (as in the Miranda warnings that criminals are entitled to here). Palin may not have known it, but she had been provided with a canned phrase that has been regularly slung at Obama since the Supreme Court decided a case called Boumediene v. Bush in June, on a 5A?4 vote. The majority ruled that foreigners detained as “enemy combatants” at GuantA!namo had the right to file habeas corpus petitions in US courts. It did not say they were entitled to have their rights read to them, nor did Obama. He simply applauded the court for upholding the rule of law. McCain, along with President Bush, stood with the dissenting judges, one of whom, Anthony Scalia, said the decision would “almost certainly cause more Americans to be killed.”
Playing fast and loose with this jurisprudence, Sarah Palin’s speechwriter compressed it into a phrase. Conservative commentators all but hailed her speech as signaling the Second Coming of Ronald Reagan. They’d been waiting a long time.
When it was the top of the ticket’s turn the next night, he was greeted by an aroused, unified party that had been drilled for three days on the message that his maverick qualities—however much they’d been grounds for mistrust in years past, however evanescent they might now actually be—were, along with his heroic “story,” precisely what gave the Republicans a chance of holding on to the White House in a year when they’d anticipated doom. McCain’s comeback after the collapse of his campaign last summer, after he’d been written off by all the know-it-all handicappers and operatives, was no longer a harbinger of a conservative decline. It was another heroic episode in a heroic life, one that carried the promise of redemption this fall against all odds.
But in getting to this point, McCain had made himself less his own man than he’d ever been before. The roulette wheel was still spinning on the Palin gamble; a new revelation, or a serious misstep on the part of a candidate who’s a novice at the national level, could still stagger the campaign. Even if she proved “the phenomenon” Republican operatives were touting, there was no guarantee that independent voters, including “hockey moms,” would rally to the Alaskan as a plausible next-in-line. The candidate had also given hostages to the future by the pledges he’d made to extend the Bush tax cuts and appoint justices like John Roberts and Samuel Alito, a pledge that would likely lead to the overturning of Roe v. Wade, in the event that a heavily Democratic Senate could be maneuvered into giving such a nominee the benefit of the doubt.
McCain is at his best—but most unpredictable—when he’s spontaneous. If his advisers can help it, he won’t be truly spontaneous again till the votes are in. He’d been preparing for this moment for months with a speech coach he’d acquired at Liberty University when he visited there to make peace with the late Jerry Falwell. All that coaching had not produced an orator. The idea that there was no connection between eloquence and leadership, one of the convention’s themes when applied to Obama, would now have to do double duty. McCain’s voice regularly trailed off when it should have risen; at times this vital, formerly forthright, frequently humorous man sounded unctuous, a quality that has never been ascribed to him.
None of that would have mattered had he a strong vision to offer along with the set piece on his ordeal in Hanoi, which was more affecting coming from his lips than it had been in the dozen or so renditions the delegates had sat through, especially when he spoke with humility about the experience of being broken under torture. But there was no fresh fare in the parts of the speech that were supposed to be substantive. Jobs would come from tax cuts to small business and retraining at community colleges, the sort of program he’d regularly voted against. Nuclear power, “clean coal,” and, of course, drilling would bring energy independence. His health care program would keep government bureaucrats from coming between you and your doctor, as if all Americans now got to choose family doctors, there were no uninsured, and no insurance company bureaucrats. Once again Obama became a straw man. Like any Democrat, he’d tax and spend. His promise to cut taxes for all but the top 5 percent was seen as a nuance that needed no rebutting. McCain would delight in wielding the veto against any legislation containing pork, as if that were the next president’s most important challenge.
Much of this could have been found in the acceptance speeches delivered by two Bushes and Bob Dole at the last five Republican conventions. Where McCain set himself apart—in a speech that praised the President for keeping the country safe without once mentioning his name—was in a brief, scalding attack on the Republican Party itself, the party he now proposed to lead back to power. “We were elected to change Washington, and we let Washington change us,” he said. “We valued our power over our principles.” Using the word “fight” forty-three times, according to a score kept by The New York Times, he offered a litany of his own crusades over the years against Washington entrenched interests, promising to battle on from the White House. He’d also face down Iran on nukes and Russian expansionism, though he didn’t say how.
Back in 2000, Rich Lowry, editor of National Review, described McCain as “a conviction politician with no clear convictions.” It could be said again. Taken altogether, McCain offered not answers, not a program, but himself, the exemplary patriot. Jitters about a recurring crisis in the financial system had driven the Dow Jones average down nearly 345 points the day of his speech. The morning after, the unemployment rate was reported to have jumped to its highest level in five years, with 605,000 jobs having disappeared from the economy since the start of the year, posing the question of whether a combination of autobiography, promises to “fight” on all fronts, mockery, and attack ads could possibly be a winning formula in an autumn that promises to be chilly. A betting man like John McCain, intending to do whatever it takes to win, might be attracted by the odds.
—September 11, 2008
Correction October 23, 2008