Friday, September 05, 2008

Thoughts on the McCain Convention Speech

First, I think it was clear that McCain's speech was flat and uninspiring. His timing was off, parts of his speech got swallowed up in the applause, and the enthusiasm level among the delegates there was palpably low. (For instance, NRO's K-Lo wasn't reduced to tears.) If I had to guess, I'd imagine that most of the folks there would prefer the ticket to be Palin/McCain and not McCain/Palin.

Second, the GOP has a diversity image problem. When the few token minorities were shown on the television, it seemed strained and forced -- as if they had to target them instead of just sweeping over the crowds to capture the diversity.

Third, what rather surprised me was that McCain, speaking to the party faithful, basically had to reject this party's past performance. It seemed to me that not only did he have to distance himself from the Bush Administration, but also from the GOP itself. This seemed quite surreal and strange to me given that this was supposed to be a nominating convention for the Republican Party. And the audience was noticably lukewarm to McCain when he said things critical of the Republican Party.

Fourth, McCain's speech (as was just about every other speech I heard) was devoid of any real substantive policy ideas. Occasionally, one would hear the standard boilerplate of conservative orthodoxy (cut taxes, limited government, fighting terrorism, etc.,), but there was nothing of substance provided. And, in fact, the delegates didn't want substance. All they wanted was red meat social conservatism. McCain didn't give them as much of this as other speakers did, which I think explains why most in the audience were so unenthused about him.

I tend to like John McCain at the gut level; but I think he loses the election if it continues to be about him. I suspect that as the next phase of the general campaign winds up, conservatives re-energized by the selection of Sarah Palin are going to want to see more and more of her. There will be some creep to elevate her as the de facto primary force on the GOP ticket. And this is dangerous for the GOP because the more Sarah Palin creeps to the top of the ticket in the minds of campaign observers and average citizens, the more her lack of experience to be President will become more of a legitimate issue. The only thing conservatives have to blunt criticism of Palin's readiness to be President is the fact that she is on the ticket as the Vice Presidential candidate. So the more that she becomes the de facto primary face of the GOP ticket, the more this argument loses any kind of force. And the more that Palin becomes the face of the GOP ticket, the greater the likelihood the ticket loses. So, from where I sit, the GOP is in a tough bind. McCain can't win the election on his own and he needs to roll out Palin more completely to keep the base energized; but the more he rolls out Palin, the more weak and inexperienced and desperate the ticket seems.

The next two weeks will reveal quite a bit, I think.


Eric said...

Regarding your points:

1) Yes. In fact, calling it "flat and uninspiring" is actually a bit kind of you. I didn't expect much from McCain, but that speech was pretty horrible. Peggy Noonan caught some heat for calling the McCain campaign out for "going for this political bullshit about narratives". I agree with her. This isn't an Alcoholics Anonymous meeting, I don't need to hear your "story", I can read about it on Wikipedia. Tell me what you want to do.

2) The Dems have a more ethnically diverse audience because they promise to do things for minorities based on their race, and have done this for decades. Conservatives tend to consider these types of promises as racist, and even attempt to unwind legislation that helps minorities if it is inherently race-based. I think they're right, but its one of those things where doing the right thing comes with a price tag. Also, with Palin poised for a slingshot to the top of the ticket in '12 or '16, it almost seems like the GOP is making a conscious decision to forego the minority vote in favor of the female vote.

3) I don't know why this would surprise you. It wasnt' the party faithful who voted for McCain in the primaries. Did you think conservatives were, by-and-large, very happy with what the GOP has done to our government over the last 8 years? A major part of the reason the Dems won so big in '06, and will likely pick up House and Senate seats this year, is because conservatives are refusing to support the entrenched GOP power structure in D.C., who are more concerned with status quo politics than enacting the policies and reforms they were elected to enact. These conservatives probably aren't the kind who go to national party conventions, but they are the ones who McCAin needs to open up their wallets.

4) The lack of policy initiatives was my biggest dissapointment. The boilerplate stuff was OK. Bush is not a small government conservative (he is fairly progressive when it comes to domestic programs, and I can't figure out why the Dems don't like him more for this), so we haven't heard much of this kind of talk fom a President in the last 8 years... but I would have liked to hear McCain commit to cutting two hundred billion in spending, or something like that, and then listing off programs and departments he wanted to scrap. The GOP version of Changey McHopeitude, while a little easier on my ears, isn't all that much different than the donk version, and I am getting a little disgusted with conservatives for not noticing this and raising hell about it.

A few more notes:

-Regarding Palin, she is the reason McCain might very well win in November. Republicans are eneamored with her, and see flashes of Reagan in her rhetoric, and most importantly: They see a grand opportunity, with her as VP, to lock up the White House for the next 12 or 16 years while also handing America its first female President. This will get the voters out who stayed home during the '06 mid-terms, or who were planning on making a protest vote against McCain over the immigration issue. Bottom line: in order to secure victory, Obama will have to win over a lot more undecideds than he needed before Palin showed up on the scene.

-For the reasons stated above, I disagree with you that it is disadvantageous for Palin to become increasingly popular on the GOP ticket. Nobody is going to seriously make the case for reversing the ticket after the nomination has been awarded, but as she becomes more popular, they are going to see an opportunity for her to get executive experience in advance of Presidential bid in '12 or '16.

- I think the GOP went into this election cycle thinking there was no way to retain the White House after 8 years of a very unpopular Bush. They are still expecting to take a bath in the Congressional elections, but the White House now looks attainable. Obama simply hasn't caught fire like everyone expected him to, and all the low-hanging fruit is gone, he will have to fight for every vote from here on out. The Republicans, however, just found a bunch of fresh low-hanging fruit with Palin. And McCain is moderate enough to be able to go to battle with Obama for the remaining undecided voters. They seem to me to be a pretty potent combination.

Huck said...

All excellent points, Eric. We'll see how this plays out in the end. It is certainly possible for McCain to win this thing; but I think he has cast his lot with a strategy that will do longterm damage to conservative interests for generations. The reason why McCain will win is not because he's a Maverick or a reformer -- in fact, if he wins, I think it will be in spite of this aspect of his character. And it will also be in spite of any tax policy program, health care program, energy program (except drilling), etc. Rather, McCain can only win by tying the future of the GOP to a really reactionary (at least as I see it) social conservatism imbued with Christian fundamentalist overtones. We saw it at Saddleback and we see it in his rash choice of Palin for his VP. What energizes the base about Palin has very little to do with her ideas, her accomplishments, her knowledge of any policy issues, domestic or foreign, or even her governing experience. They love her because she's a fundamentalist Christian with a big family who had a Downs Syndrome baby instead of an abortion. I know that sounds crude, but I don't see any conservatives expressing any interest in really learning about how she governed and the many clouds under which her political career stands. McCain, the only GOP candidate whom I thought could reform the GOP in positive ways, has sold the GOP down the farm to the most reactionary elements of the base. And, frankly, now that this genie is out of the bottle, I don't think McCain can control it. Just look at how the Convention ended. McCain was really an afterthought.

MAD said...

There is more to McCain than meets the eye, or the ear. He is not a powerful orator, but I think that there was more substance to the speech than you have allowed in your comments. For an acceptance speech, I prefer the broad brush approach; that is, the general political philosophy of the candidate. Also, I want to hear the narrative of the candidate. I want to know who he is, and how he defines himself. The narrative tells more about a candidate's integrity and character and life experiences than would some wonkish laundry list of proposed programmatic initiatives. Clearly there was some discomfiture between McCain and the audience in the hall, but that is not necessarily a bad thing. It effectively represents not a fatal disunity but a dynamic tension that portends some degree of course correction of a party that has lost its way of late.

Huck said...

mad - But the course correction you would like to see is not what has re-energized his campaign. It was his selection of Palin and his embrace of the most reactionary fundamentalist Christian evangelical segments of the GOP's base. It's great that McCain still has that maverick streak in him and that this caused some dynamic tension and discomfiture between McCain and his audience; but McCain has lost his authority to carry that reform agenda through in meaningful ways. Sure, McCain reflected some of his previous credentials, but that Convention had long since abandoned any real interest in this part of his campaign in favor of red meat culture war partisanship. You watch ... the next 60 days, I predict, will be less and less about McCain and more and more about Palin and the culture war.

MAD said...

Agreed, except as to the part about the loss of authority. McCain has not made a pact with the devil. If he is successful in attracting moderates and independents to his cause, then he is not fully compromised to the party faithful and is thus well positioned to seek structural reform, perhaps even ideologic reform. It will not be easy, but I don't see Palin as purposefully undermining a McCain presidency. Sure, Palin power would be omnipresent, but McCain is no pushover and I suspect that Palin will play ball with him and hold the culture warriors at bay.

Huck said...

MAD - Perhaps you are right about moderates and independents, but I'm skeptical. To the degree that his campaign becomes more and more captive to the Palinophiles, and to the degree that red meat social conservatism plays out publicly in his campaign, I suspect that more and more independents and moderates will shy away from him, despite his Convention speech. You say McCain has not made a pact with the devil. I'm not so sure he hasn't; and I would imagine that many moderates and independents will wonder likewise, and will ponder whether McCain really can control that nasty genie he so irresponsibly unleashed. It's a gamble. But look at what has happened in the short time he has made this deal. He can't seem to campaign alone now. People don't want him, they want Sarahcuda. I guess I'm not as sanguine as you are about McCain's ability to reassert his control and authority over the next 60 days.