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.