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John & Sarah in St. Paul

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

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