1. I am clueless as to whether the speech will be viewed by most of those who saw it as successful or not. My instinct is that it was okay but not outstanding, weak in some parts and quite strong in others, but ultimately it will have little lasting impact, for reasons I will get to in a moment.
2. The speech started slowly and the policy section, while fine, was fairly typical and uncreative. It had no unifying thread, no real explication of a governing philosophy, and no sense of priority in terms of the issues. This created a check-the-box quality to the address. I’m therefore doubtful that Senator McCain advanced the ball much in terms of appealing to the American people on what is commonly referred to as the “kitchen table” issues. If that’s the case–and I’m not sure it is–it’s a problem.
3. Senator McCain’s paragraph on the waywardness of the GOP over the last several years was necessary. In the current political environment, McCain needs to demonstrate that he is as disappointed in the Republican Party’s missteps and acts of corruption as much of the public is. If McCain did this in a believable way, as I think he did, voters might have some confidence that he will revivify the Grand Old Party.
4. The thematics of the speech were more interesting than the policy prescriptions and, in their conceit, politically shrewd. The McCain campaign has clearly decided, and in my judgment wisely decided, that it has played the experience card about as well as it could. Senator McCain and his senior advisers knew they had to pivot to a new narrative; they have chosen to portray McCain, by virtue of his record and his temperament, as the authentic agent of change in this race. That is in large measure why he chose Governor Palin as his vice presidential pick.
To put it another way: McCain was willing to weaken what had been his best argument to date–Obama’s inexperience and unreadiness to be commander-in-chief–in order to try to hijack what had been Obama’s greatest strength: the promise of change. It’s highly unlikely that McCain can win outright the claim of who best represents change in this election–but if McCain can narrow the gap, it might be enough for him to win the election.
The other thematic that was (relentlessly) advanced in last night’s address was that McCain will be a fighter for average Americans. This frame comes straight out of the Hillary Clinton playbook, and it’s smart. It was, it’s worth recalling, the best case Hillary Clinton made in the primary campaign; her problem was that she settled on it too late. But it helped fuel Clinton’s impressive close in the primaries, when she often beat Obama and, significantly, simply wiped him out in states like Kentucky and West Virginia. The McCain campaign clearly learned from the Clinton campaign, and they’re not too proud to borrow a good idea. The question is whether, in concrete and practical terms, it’s clear to most people what McCain will fight for. Has he penetrated the public imagination on domestic policy and his governing “vision”? I think the answer is still unclear.
5. The coda of the speech was powerful, moving, and in parts profound; McCain told his POW story in a more effective way than I’ve ever heard him tell it before. And his meditation on love of country was extraordinary. It’s hard to believe that anyone who doesn’t work at MSNBC could hear McCain’s account and not be deeply moved by it, or recognize that McCain is, in many respects, a truly great man.
For those of us who believe character and courage are important things to take into account in selecting a president–both as an example to his countrymen but also as important governing traits–McCain’s biography matters. But it’s also worth bearing in mind that Bob Dole had a compelling personal story, too, and he was soundly defeated by Bill Clinton–a man whose character was, to be charitable, less than admirable.
6. To return to an earlier point I made: Senator McCain’s speech, apart from its close, will soon be forgotten, largely because Sarah Palin’s speech was so memorable. She was unquestionably the star of this convention. Her speech, unlike his, had a backdrop of drama. She was largely unknown to most of America, and clearly some reporters, newspapers, and cable networks were out to belittle her and, as evidenced by their near obsession with Bristol Palin’s pregnancy, to cross certain lines in order to destroy her candidacy.
Governor Palin responded to all this with self-possession, confidence, a sense of joy and eagerness for the battle ahead, and an outstanding speech–well-crafted, tough-minded, and devastatingly effective against Senator Obama. She may be the only person in America who could have sent a jolt of electricity and excitement through the GOP and the conservative movement. She also turned out to be a one-woman answer to the intensity gap. Many Republicans and conservative believe her selection reflects well on Senator McCain.
7. The most important thing to take away from this last week, I think, is that the GOP is positioned much better than virtually anyone could have imagined two months ago. The frame is not so much a Democrat v. a Republican or change v. a Bush third term; rather, it is a choice between John McCain and Sarah Palin v. Barack Obama and Joe Biden. That’s about as much as Republicans could have hoped for.
The other thing that should not be overlooked is that Barack Obama has pretty much completed his transformation from an exciting, unifying, post-partisan figure to a completely orthodox candidate. The excitement, hope, and sense of high calling many people felt for Obama earlier this year has faded and, for many people, evaporated. Iowa and all Iowa represented in the rise of Obama seems long ago and far away.
At this point, then, the race is quite close and McCain, while still the underdog, not only has a chance to win the election, but his odds of winning are creeping up to close to even. In this environment that achievement is, all by itself, extremely impressive.
This entire political year has been one of the most memorable in our lifetime, and at various times it has been gripping. It looks as if the final two months of the campaign will be as interesting, intense, and unpredictable as what has come before it. Perhaps that’s only fitting.