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Mccain's Appeal: Final Thoughts

I can’t say whether John McCain’s acceptance speech was particularly effective. I’ve become numb after five days of covering this convention. But let me make some observations and pose some questions.

1) McCain is running on his biography--I think my colleagues Noam, Mike, and I each heard versions of McCain’s captivity at the Hanoi Hilton at least fifteen times during these days. It had an almost religious ring to it--the way one repeats the story of the crucifixion and resurrection as way of explaining the appeal of Christianity. And McCain is linking his story to a political appeal, embodied in the slogan “country first.” 

One might imagine that this slogan deeply resonates in American history, but it doesn’t at all. America has been a nation of individuals who don’t put nation first. We’ve only generally done so when the nation itself has been threatened with extinction--during World War II and the Cold War. But it is very much the permanent ethos of the military. In the 2004 election, Bush attempted to encourage a nationalism based upon the threat of radical Islam--as did Rudy Giuliani did this year’s primaries. And so did McCain.  

But McCain has become somewhat circumspect--he no longer talks of the “transcendent threat” of radical Islam--because, I suspect, he recognizes that Americans don’t feel mortally threatened and that based on the experience of the Iraq war, are skeptical of these kind of appeals. But lacking these appeals, will McCain’s slogan of “country first”--and his own story--may not have the kind of resonance he hopes for. Certainly it will with veterans and with the World War II and early Cold War generations, but I’m not sure it will with other Americans.

2) During the height of the New Deal majority, Republicans running for office in a state like New York or my state of Maryland would never advertise their party allegiance. Then, during the Reagan years, being a Republican became popular, especially in the South and parts of the West. McCain is running a race like the Republicans used to do during the previous Democratic majority. It’s a tacit recognition on his part that Democrats are going to control the Congress and many of the states next year.

In his speech, McCain only used the term “Republican” to blame his party as well as the Democrats for the ills of Washington. He said he didn’t work “for a party.” And he promised to work with Democrats and appoint them to his government. That’s a remarkable change from the Bush strategy of 2004 and bodes well for the country if McCain does win.

3) During his campaign, McCain emphasized biography and foreign policy and talked little about the economy. In this speech, he gave first billing to biography, second to the economy, and third to foreign policy. Most of his economic programs are Republican retreads--Bush’s tax cuts, Robert Dole’s crusade for vouchers and against the teachers’ unions--but he has to get some credit for being more specific in this respect than Barack Obama was. 

There was, however, a certain unreality to McCain’s display of concern that finally peeked through when he tried to elaborate a vision of a new American economy. As he said that he would “encourage the development and use of flex fuel, hybrid and electric automobiles,” he shrugged, as if he were repeating lines in which he had no particular interest. Watch it on video. 

4) Before McCain’s speech, I wrote about how his planners at the convention had avoided certain potentially toxic subjects in their televised presentations. One was abortion McCain gave the Republican base its due, but in a coded manner that most listeners will miss. He had a single reference to the “culture of life”--signifying his opposition to abortion. 

Another was immigration. McCain made a fleeting appeal to the Latinos that backed him because of his support for immigration reform by including reference to “the Latina daughter of migrant workers “ That obviously did not commit him to any position on immigration and probably won’t attract many Latino votes or repel Anglo ones.

And the last was the neo-conservative foreign policy agenda. His discussion of foreign policy itself was almost an afterthought and was framed to display his own commitments, but also to reassure voters that he would not start more wars. He criticized Russia, for instance, but promised “as President I will work to establish good relations with Russia so we need not fear a return of the Cold War.” 

These kind of positions--on the economy, education, energy, immigration, and foreign policy--will become the subject of the debates between McCain and Obama. At that time, McCain have a harder time mollifying his base and appealing to the center than he did in this speech. But Obama will face challenges of his own in matching the specifics of McCain’s economic proposals.

--John B. Judis