The Corner

Substance and Style

I (naturally, I suppose) liked McCain’s turn to reform in tonight’s speech. He started to lay out a narrative that—if elucidated further—stands to make some sense of the moment we’re in and offers a practical contrast to the Obama change parade, in terms conservatives could appreciate and voters might welcome. There was unfortunately much of the usual “I’m not that conservative” preening, but there was also some useful and meaningful substance of (to my mind) the right (and Right) sort.

But the speech was not written for John McCain. The formality and the forced repetition are not elements he can pull off. The speech called for a sustained precision of pitch and volume that has never been part of McCain’s rhetorical repertoire. It was just written for someone else. McCain’s speeches don’t have to sound this bad, and don’t always sound this bad. They do sometimes have (in John Podhoretz’s apt phrase) “a quiet intensity” that can be quite effective. This one didn’t. But it reads pretty well, which is a start, and it was in any case the only genuine substantive development tonight.

This was supposed to be one of the set-piece “milestones” of the campaign: the Democratic race is over, and now the general election begins. Only McCain and Obama have already been running against one another for weeks, and Hillary isn’t actually quite out yet. So Obama (very ably) delivered a speech that didn’t really make a single point he has not been making routinely all spring, and the question on everyone’s mind is still “what is Hillary up to?” Only McCain, however clumsily, introduced something new. Here’s hoping he builds on it.

Yuval Levin is the director of social, cultural, and constitutional studies at the American Enterprise Institute and the editor of National Affairs.

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