McCain Bores 'Em

Sarah Palin was a tough act to follow. But McCain’s speech was fairly bland by any measure—except when he went after Russia.

After Sarah Palin emerged from her cone of silence Wednesday night to deliver a rousing speech to the Republican convention, John McCain faced a tall order. He failed to meet it. Instead of a seasoned politician preparing for battle, he resembled a pastor in a mega-church offering soothing self-improvement bromides. How serving a vaguely defined "cause greater than yourself" might cure America's economic and foreign policy woes was never made clear. If the wacky Code Pink demonstrators attempting to disrupt his speech had been allowed to hang around, McCain would have been able to silence them by putting them to sleep. He was the first presidential nominee who appeared bored by his own speech, at least until the very end, when he beseeched Americans to join him in a new war on Washington, as though his true adversary wasn't Barack Obama but George W. Bush.

With McCain calling for "change," but failing to specify what it might actually be, Republican delegates could be forgiven for wondering if McCain had joined the Obama campaign. But the change that Obama-excuse me, McCain-was calling for seemed directed mostly at the GOP itself. After eight years of Bush-Cheney, McCain appeared to suggest, he would resurrect the party, much as he had resurrected his own presidential aspirations in the past year. He alluded to "some Republicans" who had gone astray and succumbed to "corruption." To burnish his credentials as a reformer, McCain referred to his past record on issues such as campaign finance reform, which hasn't sat well with conservative Republicans, to say the least.

But in his eagerness to present himself as a uniter, McCain dumped much of the Republican brand. Where was the conviction about tax cuts or cutting the deficit? McCain was maddeningly opaque about reviving the economy, apart from sounding Obama-like notes about the difficulties faced by average Americans. McCain's most pressing goal seemed to be emancipating America from Middle East oil, a pleasant but unlikely prospect. A nod to the "culture of life" and cursory remarks about education filled out the rest of his remarks about domestic policy. McCain's only trump card is Iraq, where he backed the surge, but the war has been dragging on so long that many Republicans have soured on it, and McCain's remarks about Pearl Harbor and World War II only served to underscore his advancing age.

If Palin fired up the convention, then, McCain was like a water hose, dousing any lingering sparks of excitement. While Obama landed numerous blows in his convention speech, McCain barely even got in a jab. The bland generalities that McCain offered didn't animate the convention-goers any more than they will the rest of America. McCain was obviously trying to stake out the role of venerable statesman, but how does that comport with his call for radical "change"?

To distance himself from the Bush administration, McCain didn't simply call for a "fight" to clean up Washington. He also scrapped all the neocon rhetoric about democratizing the rest of the world. There was no wild talk about a World War IV with terrorists abroad. Rather, he focused on old-fashioned power politics, pointing to the threat posed by Iran. But he didn't do more than allude to Iran-no talk about bombing or the like. That would have upset the soft and cuddly tone of his talk.

The only really troubling notes that he sounded on foreign policy had to do with Russia. The evil empire, he indicated, is back, and he wants to fight it. McCain sketched out a morality play, in which the "brave people of Georgia" were wholly blameless for the Russian bear's predations. Oh, no, he doesn't want a new cold war, McCain hastened to add, after excoriating the Kremlin's bad behavior in Georgia, but it's hard to see how he would avoid one. Anyway, with Vice President Dick Cheney holding out the promise of one billion dollars in aid to the Georgians (don't Republicans oppose handouts?) as well as NATO membership, it may already be well underway by the time a new president is sworn into office. Given the shadowy nature of the war on terror, Russia offers a good, old-fashioned foe for McCain and others searching for an enemy.

McCain's animus toward Russia may well be rooted in his own cold war experiences. His bellicosity has hardly gone unnoticed abroad. The German weekly Der Spiegel is featuring a portrait of McCain on its cover with the title "The Cold Warrior." But the most moving section of McCain's speech was his recounting of his experiences in Vietnam as a prisoner of the North Vietnamese. This isn't milking his history, as some Democrats would have it, but the essence of his character. McCain would have done better to begin with this self-portrait, and then explain what he believes.

The mush that he offered last night, though, will satisfy neither Democrats nor Republicans. It sounded as though McCain were trying to persuade himself-as opposed to the audience-of the truth of his speech. His tepid reception suggests that he's a general without a real army behind him. Maybe Palin, who is probably his true bequest to the party and must already be thinking about 2012, can rally the troops. But McCain, who has been engaged in various makeovers, provided last night what his hero Winston Churchill famously called a "pudding without a theme." If McCain continues on this path, he won't simply be headed toward a defeat in November, but something this valiant warrior has always despised-a humiliating one.

 

Jacob Heilbrunn is a senior editor at The National Interest.