The Top Story by Chris Graham
Two weeks ago, the ’08 presidential election was essentially a referendum on whether Democratic Party nominee Barack Obama was fit to be commander-in-chief, even as Obama had been efforting for months to convince voters that it was really about change. Last night, John McCain, a political maverick to a fault, redefined the race by calling a halt to the referendum on Obama’s experience and accepting the mantra of change.
“The speech he gave last night is the kind of campaign he wants to run,” Christopher Newport University political-science professor Quentin Kidd told me this morning, referring to the McCain Republican National Convention acceptance speech in which he did not say George W. Bush’s name out loud, excoriated Republicans for being “elected to change Washington, and we let Washington change us,” and echoed Obama’s Democratic National Convention speech of a week ago by making fight and change the new campaign buzzwords.
That’s the way McCain has always seen himself, Kidd said, “as the maverick, Straight Talk Express John McCain.” “I think he’s by necessity found himself having to wander around and move away from that a little bit in the Republican primary season, and I think he’s trying to get back there to the middle,” Kidd said. “Because really McCain the reformer, McCain the straight talker, was the McCain that appealed to Middle America, the middle of American politics. He had to move away from the middle to win the nomination, and now he’s trying to move back to the middle. But the oddity is that he realizes that he can’t do that alone, he has to have somebody there on the right side of his party to satisfy that side of his party,” Kidd said.
And so here we are, with the polls that had reflected a brief Obama DNC bounce again tightening even before the paradigm shift that the McCain acceptance speech promises to add to the mix with the surprise selection of heretofore little-known Alaska Gov. Sarah Palin to run on the GOP ticket. The response to the speech itself was at best mixed. I tuned into the Fox News Channel for postspeech analysis from the network’s line of conservative commentators and was a bit taken aback at the tepid response from the cheerleader set. Former Bush campaign brain Karl Rove summed it up best, calling it a “workmanlike speech, but not what we saw last night” from Palin in her red-meat slash-and-burn vice-presidential nomination acceptance speech. Another former member of Bush’s inner circle, former presidential speechwriter Michael Gerson, called the speech “pretty disappointing.” “It didn’t do a lot of outreach to moderates and independents on issues that they care about,” Gerson said. “It talked, about issues like drilling and school choice which was really speaking to the converted. I think that was a missed opportunity. Many Americans needed to hear from this speech something they have never heard from Republicans before. And in reality, a lot of the policy they’ve heard from Republicans before,” Gerson said.
Those reads are of interest to me because like Kidd I focused on the notes on the song sheet singing change. A second read of the speech revealed some of what Gerson in particular was saying. The school-choice reference was somewhat cloaked, but evident upon a careful reread. “When a public school fails to meet its obligations to students, parents deserve a choice in the education of their children. And I intend to give it to them. Some may choose a better public school. Some may choose a private one. Many will choose a charter school. But they will have that choice and their children will have that opportunity. Sen. Obama wants our schools to answer to unions and entrenched bureaucracies. I want schools to answer to parents and students. And when I’m president, they will,” McCain said. The lines, meanwhile, about taxes and the economy bordered on the nonsensical. “I will keep taxes low and cut them where I can. My opponent will raise them. I will open new markets to our goods and services. My opponent will close them. I will cut government spending. He will increase it,” McCain said, without offering specifics about either Obama’s plan, which actually only increases taxes on the top 5 percent of income-earning Americans and at the same time includes provisions aimed at significantly reducing government spending, or his own plan, which is predicated upon a continuation of the Bush tax cuts for the superwealthy and offers nothing concrete in terms of going about reducing out-of-control government spending.
“John McCain said that his party was elected to change Washington, but that they let Washington change them. He’s right,” Obama campaign spokesman Bill Burton said in response. “He admonished the ‘old, do-nothing crowd’ in Washington, but ignored the fact that he’s been part of that crowd for 26 years, opposing solutions on health care, energy and education. He talked about bipartisanship, but didn’t mention that he’s been a Bush partisan 90 percent of the time, that he’s run a Karl Rove campaign, and that he wants to continue this president’s disastrous economic and foreign policies for another four years. With John McCain, it’s more of the same,” Burton said.
My thinking is that the “more of the same” tagline that the DNC and the Obama campaign has hung on the McCain campaign is resonating with voters enough at least in the McCain camp’s eyes that they decided it was necessary to make the break with Bush and the maintream of the Republican Party to have any chance of winning in November. It’s a fine line to have to walk, though, as was evidenced last night with the cricket-chirping silence that his more cutting observations about the need to get the country back on the right track and get the federal government back on the right track was greeted with. “The challenge for McCain is twofold,” George Mason University professor and political expert Steve Farnsworth told me today. “One, he has to generate enthusiasm among the conservative Republicans who have never really liked McCain. They’ll support him grudgingly, but that doesn’t necessarily mean that they’ll be enthusiastic in their work on the campaign. The selection of Sarah Palin as the running mate I think solves the first problem. The base really likes Palin, and her very aggressive, combative approach is exactly what the McCain campaign needed to keep conservative Republicans enthusiastic about the election,” Farnsworth said.
“The second challenge, reaching out to moderate, independent voters, is really the job of McCain’s more than Palin’s. And if you listen to the McCain speech last night, or if you read it, you see very clearly that McCain has a great interest in presenting himself as a moderate figure interested in bringing about a more cooperative politics in the years ahead.”
“Ultimately the conservative Republicans don’t have any other place to go. So in order to win some more independents, McCain is saying some things at the convention that some of the more conservative Republicans don’t want to hear. But that’s McCain – that’s the way he’s been throughout his career. He’s always been a thorn in the side of more conservative Republicans,” Farnsworth said.
I used the phrase fine line to describe the path that the McCain campaign needs to walk the next two months. I think Kidd had a more evocative way of putting it. “He’s really woven a pretty interesting piece of fabric here in selecting her and then giving the kind of speech he gave, which suggests the kind of campaign he wants to run. It’s an interesting tapestry, and it’s a complicated one. We’ll see. If he’s successful at pulling it off, then he energizes his base and he captures the middle, which is what he needs to do to win,” Kidd said.
Kidd advises that we not underestimate the ability of McCain to pull this seemingly impossible feat off. “McCain has been good at adjusting. If you remember during the primary season, everybody thought he was out. His campaign team was in disarray, he had no money. He’s proven very adept at adjusting, and so I think it’s going to be a very exciting season,” Kidd said.