Let me start out by saying that I like John McCain as a politician. How can you not admire someone whose mantra is that he does what he thinks is right? He stands up when nobody else will – for the surge, against torture, for election reform, against earmarks. He speaks the truth when he says, We [the Republicans] went to change Washington, and Washington changed us. Yet, implicit in these stands were criticisms of the Republican president for not sending enough troops, for not vetoing enough pork barrel bills, for not only countenancing torture but for seeking to give it a legal basis.
Still, one of the headlines from McCain’s acceptance speech is that criticized his own party. The CNN soundbite this morning was of McCain saying of Republicans, “We lost. We lost the trust of the American people when some Republicans gave in to the temptations of corruption. We lost their trust when rather than reform government, both parties made it bigger. We lost their trust when instead of freeing ourselves from a dangerous dependence on foreign oil, both parties and Senator Obama passed another corporate welfare bill for oil companies. We lost their trust, when we valued our power over our principles.” How many presidential nominees, accepting their party’s mantle, have said, “We lost?”
The best thing about McCain is that he really is a maverick. And the worst thing about McCain is that he really is a maverick. The media loves mavericks because mavericks say what is on their mind. But seasoned politicians don’t like them. Party loyalists do not like them. I’m sure a lot of leading Republicans did not applaud when McCain said, “I understand who I work for. I don’t work for a party and I don’t work for special interests and I don’t work for myself.” You can bet that the minority leaders of the House and Senate expect John McCain to work for his party. They are not going to be thrilled if he follows through on his campaign promise of reaching out to Democrats. They are not going to be happy when he vetoes the highway bill with their earmarks in it. Some readers may recall that Jimmy Carter vetoed a water bill that had a bunch of reservoir projects in it. The members who lost their projects never got over it.
Sam Rayburn used to advise new members of Congress, “If you want to get along, go along.” That is how Washington works. It always has been; it always will be. But it is not how John McCain works.
Before McCain’s speech last night, I thought he needed to accomplish three things. First, he needed to differentiate himself from the president in order to rebut Democratic charges that he represents the third Bush term. What McCain did instead was to differentiate himself from his party, or at least those members of his party, the Tom DeLays, who violated the trust of the American people, when he said, the party of Lincoln, Roosevelt, and Reagan is going to get back to basics. The name Bush was absent.
The second thing that he needed to do was to talk about his agenda. He did some of that: keep taxes low, open more markets, provide school choice (differentiating himself in each case from Obama), but I came away feeling that what McCain really wants to do is be the Sheriff of Washington, who brings law and order to a corrupt town. He said, “Change is coming,” a theme that seems to have a lot of resonance this year, but it will take more than vetoes to restore the economy, more than character to deal with the problems the country faces. By putting so much of the race on his character and independence, I fear that McCain is bringing a knife to a gunfight. The public is worried about the economy; they’re worried about the war; these are big, big problems, and I don’t think McCain spoke to them enough.
The third thing he had to do was fire up his party. McCain is an amazing speaker in an informal format like a town hall meeting or a debate in which he can talk from the heart with total genuineness because he knows who he is. But when he has to give a formal speech with a teleprompter, it doesn’t work. I didn’t think it worked Thursday night. He had some nice touches, like his 96-year-old mother’s appearance, but in general his speech was pretty flat. (The woman standing next to me on the floor, who worked for a publication that covers Congress, told me that this was the best speech she had ever heard McCain deliver, adding that he usually isn’t very good). But Rove, talking on Fox – I heard him on a big screen outside the Xcel center on the way to the buses – said that it was the best he has done in this format, but it needed to be better. The temperature in the arena didn’t come close to breaking the thermometer.
I thought his ending was a downer too – the long and touching story of his imprisonment and his conquering of his own selfishness. It was a life-changing experience for him, and his telling of it was very powerful. But it was greeted by silence, out of respect, and that seemed to take some of the air out of the balloon. He did have a vigorous ending that had the delegates shouting:
I’m going to fight for my cause every day as your President. I’m going to fight to make sure every American has every reason to thank God, as I thank Him: that I’m an American, a proud citizen of the greatest country on earth, and with hard work, strong faith and a little courage, great things are always within our reach. Fight with me. Fight with me.
Fight for what’s right for our country.
Fight for the ideals and character of a free people.
Fight for our children’s future.
Fight for justice and opportunity for all.
Stand up to defend our country from its enemies.
Stand up for each other; for beautiful, blessed, bountiful America.
Stand up, stand up, stand up and fight. Nothing is inevitable here. We’re Americans, and we never give up. We never quit. We never hide from history. We make history.
The next crucial moment is the first debate. It is a format at which McCain is much better than he is at the formal speech.