Politics & Policy

After Sarah

Did John McCain do what he needed to do?

Al Felzenberg

He did what he had to do. While the first half of his acceptance speech at the Republican National convention bore a closer resemblance to a State of the Union address than to an acceptance speech, McCain accomplished several of his major goals.

He made clear that his would be a transitional presidency, guiding the nation away from both the policies and also the institutional structures that have served the nation well in the 20th century, but are obsolete in the 21st. Nowhere was his message clearer than in his passages on education and energy. McCain proclaimed, as had so many conservatives before him, that schools are the servants of students and parents, rather than the preserves and protectors of educational bureaucracies. He then made a direct link between their enhanced performance and the improvement of American competitiveness throughout the world.

He also cited retraining of displaced workers, with the government picking some of the transitional costs, as the means through which people can find their way to well paying jobs the global economy can create.

Adding to what he had said all summer, McCain promised to set the United States on a path toward energy independence, citing multiple and simultaneous ways to achieve his goal. He committed his administration to keeping taxes low and committed to sustaining what he called the “culture of life.”

Having touched all the appropriate policy and ideological bases, shoring up his conservative support, McCain delivered a highly personal and poetic description of his love of country. As he repeated a narrative with which so many of his countrymen are familiar, McCain offered himself as a potential president who would govern according his best instincts and highest ideals. This will appeal to independents and to the very Democrats before whom Obama continues to have difficulty “making the sale.” McCain is clearly preparing himself to be a post-partisan president, willing to work with a Congress all but certain to be even more Democratic than the current one. With Palin holding his base firmly behind him, he may well get the opportunity for which he is prepared to fight. Not a bad way to go into the fall campaign.

Alvin S. Felzenberg is author of the forthcoming The Leaders We Deserved and a Few We Didn’t: Rethinking the Presidential Rating Game.

Charles Kesler

To this listener (I haven’t read the text yet), John McCain’s speech fell flat. It had a few soaring moments, but overall it seemed labored and much less than the sum of its parts. This impression was helped, I’m sure, by the asinine protesters who interrupted McCain at the beginning. Their presence showed that the party of homeland security needs a few more screeners at its own convention. On the brighter side, the hecklers showed that the Bush administration has not succeeded in dismantling free expression in America, despite what the Democrats say, quite freely, incidentally.

The speech did not seem well digested, and McCain’s delivery verged on the awful. He rallied to deliver some of the big lines, however, which in the age of soundbites counts for a lot. Nonetheless, the speech overall was redolent of George H. W. Bush’s effort in 1992, when he, also a war hero, faced off against the inexperienced (especially in foreign policy), big-talking, narcissistic Bill Clinton. Clinton went on to beat a second Republican war hero, Bob Dole, in 1996. Of course, America is at war now, unlike in those elections. But the war’s most visible theater, Iraq, is winding down, and it’s not clear why this race, against a much worse background for Republicans (would you rather follow Ronald Reagan or George W. Bush onto the hustings?), will turn out better. Certainly, McCain’s case for himself and his party left much to be desired. Vote for him, he said, because he puts country first. Is he saying, or implying, that Barack Obama does not? McCain denied that imputation vigorously. It’s Obama’s judgment, not his patriotism, that the Republican nominee questions. So what’s the big deal, then, about putting country first?

McCain was more critical, or at least more impressively critical, of his own party than he was of the Democrats, whom as a legislator he often allied with in the spirit of bipartisanship, of putting America first. This left this year’s GOP legislative candidates high and dry, inasmuch as he did not emphasize how deeply into the Republican bench the reform spirit had penetrated. Verily, it is difficult to go overnight from being the party maverick to the party leader.

The Republicans in the hall sensed this, but did not hold it against Sarah Palin, despite hercareer as an insurgent, because in her speech the night before she had mounted a spirited, amusing critique of Obama and the Democrats. McCain largely refrained from such a partisan performance. Besides, Palin was never really a maverick. She set about fairly soon, and apparently successfully, to refound the Alaskan GOP. She engineered a new majority within the party, and won the approval of many independents and Democrats, too. Mavericks are, by definition, a minority.

McCain reached out to independents and hard-pressed, working-class voters. But even on this important front the speech was less effective than it could have been. He and Palin will turn Washington upside down, shake it up, he promised. But what exactly is wrong with it? His indictment was moralistic rather than political. Too many people in government put themselves and their interests first, he thundered. This would not come as a surprise to James Madison, but as an indictment it is true but hardly sufficient. Is the problem mainly self-interest, or bad doctrines (and their consequence, let’s call it unlimited government) that have distorted the objects and channels of self-interest in Washington?

– Charles Kesler is professor of government and director of the Salvatori Center at Claremont McKenna College.


1. I’ll start by repeating what I said earlier, in my “instant react”: He was himself and he said what he believes. And that’s probably the most you can ask for in a candidate.

2. The introductory video was effective in its use of humor — “Some called him a hothead. Some called him things that can’t be repeated.” (I paraphrase.) Nicely done.

3. Seeing pictures of McCain’s dad reminded me that WFB knew him — stayed with him out in Hawaii.

4. “John McCain’s life was spared — perhaps he had more to do.” (Again, I’m paraphrasing.) How many would have found that at least slightly obscene?

5. Very important that the Vietnam record was gone over, in this video. But everyone knows about it, right? No. Many citizens would have found out about this for the first time. (And many others would have needed reminding.)

6. “The stars are aligned,” said the video. (I think I heard that right.) Oh, come on.

7. The video became too cheap, too hokey, too propagandistic, frankly — the sun across the ocean, the picturesque farm, all that stuff. And asinine music toward the end — really asinine.

8. I was glad to hear more from the candidate’s mother. All I knew her for, really, was the anti-Mormon zinger she delivered in the primaries, when her son was competing against Romney.

9. As he greeted the applause, and the applause greeted him, I thought, “I can’t believe he’s the Republican nominee. Wasn’t he flirting with leaving the Republican party, not too long ago?” Politics is a strange business (and so, natch, is human life).

10. The bright-green background was sucky, sucky, sucky. So was the physical setup generally. Say what you will about the O-cropolis and so on — at least the Dems were professional and competent, in their conventioneering.

11. A protester unfurled a banner saying that McCain was anti-veteran — because, as we all know, McCain hates, just hates, veterans!

12. The gratitude that McCain expressed for Bush — superb. Honorable. Right. Filled me with a warmth about McCain. Nice going, senator.

13. He said, “I won’t let you down” three times — well done. Effective.

14. Could he have handled the protesters a little better, a little more creatively? Yeah, probably, but he did all right. Funny how Republicans aren’t allowed to give their addresses, without such disruptions; the Democrats sail through theirs. And if right-wing protesters tried to disrupt their conventions — wouldn’t most conservatives be appalled and embarrassed?

15. The video images of waving flags and so on, behind the speaker, were gross.

16. McCain has an unfortunate oratorical habit: He is sober, or normal, while speaking, and then, when his sentence is finished, he smiles — very, very unnaturally. (At least that’s the appearance of it.)

17. Has there been too much focus on Bridget McCain, as some have said? Too much camera time for her? Too much of the telling of the story of her adoption? Yeah, maybe — but it’s hard to get these matters exactly right. To administer exactly the right dosage.

18. McCain’s little shot at trial lawyers — very nice. Made me think of the late John Edwards, who snowed juries — and much of the public — for years. (By “late,” I don’t mean dead, of course; I just mean done, probably.)

19. I like McCain’s word “dependence” — as in “dangerous dependence on foreign oil” — rather than “dependency.” Can’t say why with absolute certainty.

20. A “culture of life” — I wish they’d say “abortion,” these politicians, but okay.

21. “The party of Lincoln, Roosevelt, and Reagan is going to get back to basics” — a very good line because a very good message and a very good idea. After the 2006 election (debacle), many Repubs said, “Back to basics!” And McCain is right to lead that charge.

22. We heard classic, bona fide, and ringing Republicanism in, “We believe in a government that unleashes the creativity and initiative of Americans. Government that doesn’t make your choices for you, but works to make sure you have more choices to make for yourself.”

23. “I will keep taxes low and cut them where I can” — liked very much the realism of that line.

24. More broadly, this was an unusually honest speech, I must say. McCain partisans would say, “That’s because he’s an unusually honest politician” — and I think they’d be right.

25. The appeal for education reform was marvelous — almost Connerlyesque, or Thernstromesque, which is highest praise. “Senator Obama wants our schools to answer to unions and entrenched bureaucracies. I want schools to answer to parents and students.” Yes, yes. Sing it.

26. A friend e-mailed me, mid-speech, “Not exactly Palinesque.” Funny how that has become a recognizable adjective in a day — that she has become the standard in a day.

27. But what a good line, this: “We face many threats in this dangerous world, but I’m not afraid of them. I’m prepared for them.” And why such a good line? Mainly because true.

28. “I hate war” — reminiscent of FDR. But a (much) different accent!

29. Pretty damn ambitious: “We need to change the way government does almost everything.”

30. Listen to this (and I’m most interested in the last line of this passage): “I was in solitary confinement when my captors offered to release me. I knew why. If I went home, they would use it as propaganda to demoralize my fellow prisoners. Our code said we could only go home in the order of our capture, and there were men who had been shot down before me. I thought about it, though. I wasn’t in great shape, and I missed everything about America. But I turned it down.”

When I heard that line — “But I turned it down” — I thought of something Barack Obama said: “And I said yes.” (This is his acceptance of some low-paying — or relatively low-paying — job.) The contrast was amazing. Obviously, Obama has had the smaller life, so far.

31. Advance text in hand, I read the following line before it was delivered: “I’m not running for president because I think I’m blessed with such personal greatness that history has anointed me to save our country in its hour of need.” I didn’t know that was a shot at Obama until I heard the tone with which McCain said it.

32. “If you’re disappointed with the mistakes of government, join its ranks and work to correct them.” When McCain said this, virtually everyone in the NR workroom chorused, “No!”

33. McCain further said, “Run for public office.” It might have been nice if he had added, in a humorous aside, “But not against me.”

34. I loved that McCain fought through the applause in the hall and read through his final lines, about fighting and standing up. He was plenty audible, at least on television, and the applause served as a nice background, or accompaniment — almost as if the words were borne on the applause (not to get too poetic, or, in fact, flighty).

35. Some of the speech was Platitude City. Some of the speech was moving. But I will repeat: All I ask for, in a candidate, is that he be himself, that he be honest, that he say what he believes — with no funny business. And let the chips fall where they may. Let the voters decide.

McCain fills the bill. Like you, perhaps, I’m grateful for his straightforwardness. And I will vote for him (and Sarah!) with gusto.

36. One more thing: We are electing a president rather than an orator. (Never let it be said that I keep the obvious to myself.) Oratorical skills are important in a president, of course — but they are not the be-all, end-all. McCain is good enough . If you want to elect an orator — go with Obama. But that’s not the criterion, is it?

Besides which, if a boffo speech is called for: The Alaskan with the glasses can deliver it.

37. No, just one more thing: McCain needs to watch implying that he should be rewarded with the presidency, somehow, after a lifetime of service. The presidency as gold watch. I know he doesn’t mean that — but that impression can slip out. He must make the case that he’s the best man for the job — or at least the better man — right now. For these circumstances, in this period. And he will.

Addendum (Posted Later)

1. Thought he would make something of race — of the majesty of a black presidential nominee, of the importance of electing a black American to the presidency. (“But, but . . .”) He can do that on another occasion, if he wishes (and he probably already has — can’t remember).

2. Was hoping he’d do something to address the age issue, head on — à la, “I’m 72 years old, and look it. I’m all banged up — have accumulated a lot of scars in the service of my country. And I am ready to accept the challenges of the presidency.” But, again, there will be other occasions.

Age should be an advantage to McCain, not a disadvantage.

3. It’s important, of course, that good, honest patriotism not become a kind of nation-worship. I talked to a sharp friend last night — and he made a point I should have thought of: Even the slogan “Country First” doesn’t quite sit well. Why? Because country is not first (in the view I have in mind). What do the Marines say? “God, Country, Corps”?

Anyway . . .

– Jay Nordlinger is a senior editor of National Review. This analysis originally appeared in The Corner.

John J. Pitney

John McCain had to give people something to remember. He didn’t do it with his delivery: he is no Sarah Palin. He didn’t do it with his policy agenda, which was unsurprising Republican fare. He didn’t do it by naming Americans facing challenges, since other politicians have done so.

He did it with acts of contrition.

“We were elected to change Washington, and we let Washington change us,” he said. “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.” Viewers were not expecting a nominee to confess his party’s sins. That’s an unusual way to win votes, but he had to establish his credibility as a reformer. His words had heft because they were true.

And in discussing his time as a POW, the heart of his appeal, he uttered four words that had never before appeared in an acceptance speech: “And they broke me.” He reminded people that he had suffered greatly and judged himself sternly. The message wasn’t one of heroism so much as maturity. In the White House, maturity counts for more than audacity.

– John J. Pitney, Jr. is Roy P. Crocker Professor of American Politics at Claremont McKenna College.

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