Darkness had fallen over the city when Sen. John McCain stepped out from the shadow created by his running mate, Alaska Gov. Sarah Palin, after she lashed out at the Democrats and the media and intellectual elites the night before. He did so as a man declared politically dead in July 2007 when, facing dismal poll numbers and a campaign bleeding money, he let most of his staff go. Now resurrected, McCain delivered an acceptance speech for the Republican presidential nomination that reinforced his image of the elder statesman from the party in power that would keep America the great power in the world.
“I’m very proud to have introduced our next vice president to the country,” McCain said. “But I can’t wait until I introduce her to Washington. And let me offer an advance warning to the old, big-spending, do-nothing, me-first, country-second Washington crowd: Change is coming.”
McCain, 72, had arrived in the Twin Cities with much to prove. The self-described maverick has never been a favorite among the conservative base of his own party — despite repeated overtures. His past ability to work with some of the most liberal senators, like Edward M. Kennedy (D-Mass.) and Russ Feingold (D-Wis.), had only increased the ire of many influential members of the GOP. That both Sen. Hillary Rodham Clinton and Joe Biden, the Democratic Party’s almost and current vice-presidential nominees, have called him a friend, only reinforced his lack of conservative cred among the GOP base.
But the Republican Party could be ready to overlook all this. “They’re past their differences,” said Sara Taylor, a former White House political director in the Bush administration. “You can see the excitement in the hall. They understand national security is going to matter a lot for the country — and they understand John McCain is part of that future.”
McCain’s selection of the uber-conservative Palin as his running mate did much to quell the conservative backlash. But now it was his turn to prove that the man eviscerated by George W. Bush and Karl Rove during the 2000 South Carolina primary was truly one of them.
McCain’s task last night was to energize the core of the party and reach out to independents — in the same fashion Obama had done last week. He would have to do what he had regularly mocked his opponent for doing: For one night, he would have to do what he’s least good at — speak before a large audience and rock the house.
But more precarious was the lingering legacy of George W. Bush. McCain had to play to the base while disowning the legacy of Bush. Even as he acknowledged Bush at the opening, McCain had to make a quick pivot away from the president with the lowest poll rating in U.S. history.
How in God’s name does the party in power become the party of change? And how could McCain restore a Republican brand that’s become synonymous with corruption, urban neglect and a war policy gone terribly wrong?
“I fight to restore the pride and principles of our party,” McCain said, echoing words he’s used on the stump. “We were elected to change Washington, and we let Washington change us. 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 Sen. Obama passed another corporate welfare bill for oil companies. We lost their trust, when we valued our power over our principles.
“We’re going to change that,” he said. “We’re going to recover the people’s trust by standing up again for the values Americans admire. The party of Lincoln, Roosevelt and Reagan is going to get back to basics.”
McCain had a bigger opponent to overcome last night than Obama. He had to overcome himself.
In the past months, McCain stump speeches have taken on angry overtones. He has gone from calling his opponent “naive” on foreign policy to questioning the Illinois senator’s patriotic ideals. Last night, however, he showed a graciousness to Obama not seen before, at least by this reporter. Early on, he acknowledged Obama’s historic achievement in winning his party’s nomination, while promising a fair fight to come.
“We’ll go at it over the next two months,” McCain said. “That’s the nature of these contests, and there are big differences between us. But you have my respect and admiration. Despite our differences, much more unites us than divides us. We are fellow Americans, an association that means more to me than any other. We’re dedicated to the proposition that all people are created equal and endowed by our creator with inalienable rights. No country ever had a greater cause than that. And I wouldn’t be an American worthy of the name if I didn’t honor Sen. Obama and his supporters for their achievement.” (Of course, this didn’t stop McCain from taking a thinly veiled shot at Obama late in his speech.)
No one has ever accused McCain of being a great orator. But this speech did play to his strength in foreign policy. It wasn’t folksy or colloquial. Shrugging off Code Pink protesters, he spoke with full declarations stressing experience and toughness, the primary themes of his campaign.
“We have dealt a serious blow to Al-Qaeda in recent years,” he said before that godawful light-blue background. “But they are not defeated, and they’ll strike us again if they can. Iran remains the chief state sponsor of terrorism and on the path to acquiring nuclear weapons. Russia’s leaders, rich with oil wealth and corrupt with power, have rejected democratic ideals and the obligations of a responsible power. They invaded a small, democratic neighbor to gain more control over the world’s oil supply, intimidate other neighbors, and further their ambitions of reassembling the Russian empire. And the brave people of Georgia need our solidarity and prayers.
“As president, I will work to establish good relations with Russia so we need not fear a return of the Cold War. But we can’t turn a blind eye to aggression and international lawlessness that threatens the peace and stability of the world and the security of the American people.
“We face many threats in this dangerous world, but I’m not afraid of them,” he continued. “I’m prepared for them. I know how the military works, what it can do, what it can do better, and what it should not do. I know how the world works. I know the good and the evil in it. I know how to work with leaders who share our dreams of a freer, safer and more prosperous world, and how to stand up to those who don’t. I know how to secure the peace.”
Still, he missed where one expected him to miss. Since the end of the primaries, Democrats have hammered McCain for being out of touch with ordinary folk, for having an adviser in Phil Graham, who deemed the country’s economic woes “mental” and called America a nation of “whiners.” In many town halls, McCain has struggled to talk about issues like education and wages, the mortgage crisis and the loss of manufacturing jobs.
“It was probably the weakest speech of the four nominees,” said historian David Greenberg, author of “Nixon:The History of an Image.”
“The main problem is he really does not have a real domestic policy vision as late as Sept. 4. You can’t be a Teddy Roosevelt conservative and appeal to the present-day Republican Party. It was really kind of muddled. When he talked about domestic issues and people being out of work, it was like he was using rhetoric straight from the Democrats … It was like he was groping around to try and speak about the decisive issue of the election, which is economics.”
Of course, McCain was preaching to the converted. In the hours before he spoke, Montana delegate Karen Pfäehler sat where her delegation would be gathering. Still beaming over the Palin speech, she broke off our conversation when we started on the economic hardships faced by Americans, saying, “I trust him to keep us safe and I don’t trust Barack Obama. Without security, economic issues don’t matter.”
Echoing that same sentiment, Andrea Hoffman, an Oregon delegate and Realtor from Salem, wearing a red rhinestone-cowboy hat, said, “McCain gives us security and stability for the country. If we don’t have security, domestic issues don’t matter. Look, I’m proud to be an American and I don’t give a damn what anyone thinks of us.”
“This is a scary time and Barack Obama makes me nervous,” said Dave Johnson, an Ohio delegate who runs a ceramic tile business founded by his grandfather. “You have a country like Iran that wants nuclear weapons and wants to wipe Israel off the face of the Earth. Obama wants to sit down and talk to them. This is absurd.
“This is one of the most reckless, liberal candidates the Democrats have put up in quite some time,” Johnson said. “I’m frightful if he’s elected –- not only for the economy but for our national security.”
Acceptance speeches do not have to reach the heights climbed by the Democratic candidate in Denver. They can simply be moments of definition — where you reassure the base that you represent the best interests of your party and where you present a policy package before the growing number of independents who make up the U.S. electorate.
“We have 60 days to convince these middle-of-the-road voters that we have the right vision for the future,” said Yantis Green, a Texas delegate, who, like the rest of his delegation, sported a cowboy hat and a red-white-and-blue button-down shirt. “You can’t take away what Obama did last week. He did exactly what he had to do. No wonder their base was fired up. We know we’ve got work to do.
“What we’re suffering from is end-of-the-second-term fatigue,” Green continued. “You saw it with Reagan. You saw it with Clinton. And now you’re seeing that with Bush. For those middle-of-the-road voters, it’s going to come down to substance and issues — and we have a different set of issues than the Democrats. When we get down to the middle-of-the-road voters, we have to sell. Our plan is simply better.”
McCain enters the general election as the anti-Bush. He lacks the personal touch the current president displayed in beating Al Gore in 2000 and John Kerry in 2004. He is a man of Washington, a senator who will not come to the White House as an outsider. Moreover, he has a personal narrative that few of us can fully comprehend. But perhaps that’s not so bad.
“He’s someone you perhaps more admire than relate to,” said Kerry Healey, the former Massachusetts lieutenant governor, as she sat alone, waiting for the official events to begin. “For leaders, we want both. We want them to be both just like us and better than we are — and that’s a hard thing to do.
“He’s the president of the United States,” Healey said. “You’re not going over for a beer.”