Saturday, September 6, 2008

RNC Day 4: The McCain scrutiny XV

A tale of two fireworks displays: The fireworks that ended the Democratic nomination speech of Sen. Barack Obama last week were a dazzling display of live pyrotechnics ringing the thousands at Invesco Field.

When Sen. John McCain ended his speech Thursday accepting the nomination of the Republican Party for the presidency, the crowd at the Xcel Energy Center whooped and danced to a fireworks display on a monster-oversize flat-screen TV.

It’s of course an unfair comparison: the GOP played a indoor facility; the Democrats threw down at an open-air arena. But the difference is important in ways beyond stagecraft.

Xcel’s fireworks, of course, were a not-quite amazing simulation of the real thing. McCain’s acceptance speech had all the gaudy fraudulence of the View-Master scoreboard show behind him. Given the less than effusive support he's encountered from many of his fellow Republicans in the past, those in the hall may have seen the fireworks movie as more real than the man on the stage.

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More than anything, McCain’s speech bore evidence of a kind of Republican mea culpa, a true confession of the transgressions of his party over the last eight years. It was clearly the subtext of McCain’s 40-minute address: We screwed up, we’re sorry, give us another chance.

“We were elected to change Washington, and we let Washington change us,” he said to a strangely quiet house. “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.”

McCain’s self-fitting for a rhetorical hair shirt was followed by a thorough and moving exposition of his exploits a a prisoner of the North Vietnamese during the Vietnam War, an autobiography rendered in greater detail than McCain has volunteered in the past — rendered with details into McCain’s character that McCain himself couldn’t see.

“On an October morning, in the Gulf of Tonkin, I prepared for my 23rd mission over North Vietnam. I hadn't any worry I wouldn't come back safe and sound. I thought I was tougher than anyone. I was pretty independent then, too. I liked to bend a few rules, and pick a few fights for the fun of it. But I did it for my own pleasure, my own pride. I didn't think there was a cause more important than me.

“I fell in love with my country when I was a prisoner in someone else's. I loved it not just for the many comforts of life here. I loved it for its decency; for its faith in the wisdom, justice and goodness of its people. I loved it because it was not just a place, but an idea, a cause worth fighting for. I was never the same again. I wasn't my own man anymore. I was my country's.”

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Confession cleanses the soul, calls on the penitent to an act of contrition in a bid to absolve oneself of the onus of past behavior. But it does no good if the confessor keeps on doing what made confession necessary — or expedient — in the first place.

To the degree that John McCain would continue the Iraq war — at odds with the desires of a majority of the American people — his admission of the failures of his party (among them the rationalizing, starting and fighting that war) is reason enough not to elect him president. Owning up to endorsement of the paramount failure of the Bush administration, and then doggedly pledging to continue that failure, amounts to a philosophy at odds with itself. What’s the point of confession if you don’t think you’ve done anything wrong?

Despite the thunder and hoopla of a relatively successful nominating convention, McCain still faces an existential dilemma. Now, six months after effectively securing the nomination, McCain faces the need to define himself to the American people all over again. The personal military narrative, as profound an example of the tenacity of the human spirit as you could ask for, is no longer enough.

Post-convention bounces notwithstanding, people are beginning to ask: What is there beyond the heroic military experience that works today? Why does John McCain have a lock on personal Character? What isolate of Character can only be found in his personal experience, and nowhere else? And what does his long-ago manifestation of heroism do for helping me with a crippling mortgage and the price of food on the table today and tomorrow while his wife wows the convention in a $300,000 wardrobe?

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John McCain has trafficked heavily in being the Republican agent of change, but he’s lashed body and soul to the mast of the administration that precedes him. And there’s the nut of his existential dilemma: If McCain proposes to shed any relationship with George Bush and the GOP’s eight-year legacy of debacle … what’s John McCain stand for? A rebel has to be for something as much as against something. You don’t get to pick and choose the parts of history you don’t like. If you renounce the actions of your party … what do you stand on?

In his speech on Thursday, John McCain called on America to make a change from the past, but despite the flag-draped rhetoric and flashes of the moving personal expose, the speech finally didn’t work. It didn’t work because we can’t trust him to make the advertised clean break from the last eight years of American despond. Why? Because McCain, his votes and his rhetoric are a big part of what’s been responsible for the last eight years.

He’s condemned the impact of lobbyists on Washington politics while his campaign staff is crowded with them.

He presents himself as a champion of those who’ve borne the battle despite having voted repeatedly against the best interests of the veterans he claims to support.

He rails against earmarks, those much-maligned congressional pet projects, while his anointed running mate, Alaska Gov. Sarah Palin, made use of them earlier in her brief political career.

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That may be why something in the speech on Thursday rang hollow at the center to at least one of the presumably faithful of the party, and almost certainly more.

“It set out the right theme — reform — but the policy was the problem,” said Michael Gerson, a Washington Post columnist and former Bush speechwriter, on the convention floor in an interview with NBC’s Ann Curry. “The policy in the speech was rather typical for a Republican —pretty disappointing. It didn’t do a lot of outreach to moderates and independents on issues that they care about … Many Americans needed to hear from this speech something they’ve never heard from Republicans before …

“Tonight was not particularly innovative, interesting or promising,” Gerson said.

McCain’s speech was weak tea. Worse yet, it was old weak tea — not chronologically, physically old, but old in the philosophical sense, old in taking the country nowhere it hasn’t already been.

“There was a lot more spontaneous enthusiasm for Sarah Palin last night than there was for John McCain tonight,” Gerson said.

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The vacancy at the heart of McCain’s nomination acceptance speech Thursday night was inescapable. Even before Frank Rich broke it down in an op-ed in Saturday’s New York Times, the willful duality of McCain’s political nature was obvious. Rich just explained it so well, in the context of the biggest night of McCain’s political life:

“… [T]he speech’s central argument, that the 72-year-old McCain will magically morph into a powerful change agent as president, is a non sequitur. In his 26 years in Washington, most of it with a Republican in the White House and roughly half of it with Republicans in charge of Congress, he was better at lecturing his party about reform than leading a reform movement. G.O.P. corruption and governmental dysfunction only grew. So did his cynical flip-flops on the most destructive policies of the president who remained nameless Thursday night. …

“His speed-dating of Palin reaffirmed a more dangerous personality tic that has dogged his entire career. His decision-making process is impetuous and, in its Bush-like preference for gut instinct over facts, potentially reckless.”

“We’ve already seen where such visceral decision-making by McCain can lead. In October 2001, he speculated that Saddam Hussein might have been behind the anthrax attacks in America. That same month he out-Cheneyed Cheney in his repeated public insistence that Iraq had a role in 9/11 — even after both American and foreign intelligence services found that unlikely. He was similarly rash in his reading of the supposed evidence of Saddam’s W.M.D. and in his estimate of the number of troops needed to occupy Iraq. (McCain told MSNBC in late 2001 that we could do with fewer than 100,000.) …

“[T]he Palin choice was brilliant politics — not because it rallied the G.O.P.’s shrinking religious-right base. America loves nothing more than a new celebrity face, and the talking heads marched in lock step last week to proclaim her a star. Palin is a high-energy distraction from the top of the ticket, even if the provenance of her stardom is in itself a reflection of exactly what’s frightening about the top of the ticket.”

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This is the danger of the Maverick brand. For John McCain, the penitent in imperfect contrition, it points as much to history as to inclination. The candidate makes the frank admission of going a little too far, exceeding mission parameters on a hunch, pushing the envelope, picking a few fights for the fun of it. These have parallels in a style of leadership, with more lives on the line than his own.

This is the problem with being a rebel, whether flying a mission or acting as commander-in-chief of a noble but brutalized armed forces. McCain’s maverick aspect may have as many downsides as dividends. For that reason, the American people will be just as disposed in November to look at McCain as risky as Obama. With the weight of past evidence, maybe more risky than Obama.

On the glaring pivotal international issue the nation will vote on in November, the Iraq war, John McCain may be the kind of rebel America can’t afford: a change agent dangerously daring enough to be content with things pretty much the way they are.
Image credit: Bush and McCains: White House (public domain)

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