Thanks to his neo-celebrity running mate, John McCain has one tough act to follow. The upside of Sarah Palin's turbocharged speech last night is that, well, the world is now obsessed with her. The downside: She's overshadowing John McCain, and at the same time has amped up the energy here in a way that puts more pressure on McCain to lift up the crowd. McCain needs to muster as much energy as he naturally can. (I like the idea of having him come from behind the podium and walk around carrying his mic, but that involves various risks, including possible trouble seeing the teleprompter.) Bu fundamentally, McCain should do what he does best, even if that means sticking to familiar territory.
At the same time, after all, Palin has freed McCain from some of the complexities he faced prior to her successful rollout. Two weeks ago, McCain was facing a possible high wire act in which he would at once try to distance himself from George Bush while throwing enough red meat to assure conservatives that they can trust him. On the second score, however, Sarah Palin has done much of the work for him. She's a dog whistle--sorry, make that air raid siren--to evangelicals and pro-lifers and the NRA that McCain understands who calls the shots in the party.
Tonight, then, McCain's prize should be independents and moderate Democrats. There are plenty of ways to do this, to be sure--but many don't come naturally to McCain. He of the seven homes can't oversell his empathy for the downtrodden working man, for instance. He can't affect a homespun rural drawn. No, McCain only shines when he speaks from his heart--and he flops, as he did that June night before the awful lime green background--when he's faking it. So he should stick with the themes that can both light him up rhetorically and stir swing voters: Character, reform and service.
In McCain's life narrative, these three themes flow together seamlessly: McCain is a patriot who served his country, demonstrated character by withstanding unimaginable trials in Hanoi, and further proved himself by fighting to make Washington more accountable through political reform--which in turn is itself a form of service. This is hardly novel stuff, to be sure: McCain has told this basic story for many years. But that's because it works. Along with the chief author of tonight's speech, Mark Salter (read my recent Salter profile here), McCain has published five books based on these core themes, and all have been best-sellers. McCain has one of the best stories in American politics, and he should stick with it.
Will McCain's life story alone be enough to win over swing voters? It could be. His narrative is compelling enough to distract people from the reality that he has become a career politician and Washington fixture. (I especially recommend a video prequel featuring footage of McCain's incredible--and comparatively little- known--Bruce Willis-like escape from an exploding fighter jet on the deck of the USS Forrestal.) The emphasis on character allows voters to believe he can stand up to the corrupt GOP establishment they've come to loathe. And his reform message in particular, has, over the years, been among the single most powerful ways of reaching the independent Perot voters who, as TNR's John Judis often notes, are the key prize in American politics today; these are neither good-government types nor culture-warriors but rather folks who resent the idea, more on populist/pragmatic grounds than ideological ones, that Washington is an unaccountable place that carelessly squanders tax dollars and ignores simple common sense.
But the clincher is McCain's tale of service. Iraq has calmed enough that discussions of the military are no longer completely tainted by imminent horrors of war. To the contrary, McCain can link his own service to his support for the surge--to his conviction that the American military, given the full support it needs, can accomplish any task we ask of it. And flowing from that is a larger appeal to his viewers' patriotism, and an optimistic vision that American greatness and pride can be restored. McCain should treat the surge not as an example of bellicose foreign policy, but as a case study in how he can lead America back to strength.
Which is where McCain's core narrative dovetails with the Republican case against Obama. Extended discussions of character and patriotism implicitly refer back to last night's critiques of Obama as wishy-washy, self-important, and driven by personal ambition. Facing a big deficit on most issues the Republicans are, as McCain's campaign manager Rick Davis weirdly acknowledged this week, running a campaign about character. It's a deplorable way to win the White House, but it's all the GOP has got. McCain had better tell the story of a lifetime, in more ways than one.