McCain Throws Crumbs to Crowd Hungry for Red Meat

By
Photo: Getty Images

As John McCain was delivering the most important speech of his career last night, the giant video screen behind him turned the color of Mountain Dew, then bright blue. And that was just the most jarring in a series of technical gaffes that knocked the final night of the Republican convention off its bearings before McCain brought his speech to a fairly rousing close.

There was also Cindy McCain, speaking with sincere love in her voice but going on way, way too long in her introduction of her husband, apparently to ensure he would appear only after the Giants finished beating the Redskins on NBC. There were protesters who interrupted McCain; one silently and effectively held up banners like “You Can’t Win an Occupation” and “McCain Votes Against Vets,” the other self-indulgently and stupidly screamed while being dragged off the convention floor. Worst of all, there was the TelePrompTer, which was either moving at the wrong speed or catching McCain on a bad eyesight day, as again and again he labored visibly to read his remarks.

Making matters more taxing for McCain, the speakers who preceded him last night were awful. When Representative Marsha Blackburn (Tennessee) scolded “all the gray suits in booths, who had their backs turned last night facing Washington,” nobody knew who the hell she was talking about. Blackburn is a GOP officeholder even hotter politically than Sarah Palin, but when she then identified her fellow Republicans as “gun-totin’, God-fearin’, flag-wavin’ Americans who are excited to see two crack shots on the ticket,” she went deep into self-parody. And Senator Lindsey Graham (South Carolina) full-on foamed at the mouth as he delivered the smear of the week: “Barack Obama’s campaign is built around us losing in Iraq … Last summer, we came within two votes of a congressionally mandated surrender.” Whatever your politics, when watching delegates cheer as speakers like these aped the tactics of George W. Bush, you had to wonder: Is that all there is?

The man with the most interesting answer to that question, believe it or not, was Karl Rove on Fox News. Rove has an agenda to push, he usually fails to acknowledge as much, and 2006 showed he’s fallible. But he drops so many interesting nuggets so concisely that he makes Fox worth watching while he’s on, if only to gain insight into how the mind of the right works. Last night, Rove said McCain would need to focus on kitchen-table economic issues, seem forward-looking and come across as a maverick — precisely identifying how McCain could move beyond the base that Palin fired up on Wednesday night.

And McCain tried, presenting himself as a reformer across a wide range of issues. But for about 45 minutes, his speech just didn’t take off. The production glitches were one problem. Another was that his remarks had a next-to-last-draft feel to them: overly specific in spots, distressingly vague in many, many other passages. The only detailed policy proposal he put across was doubling the child tax exemption from $3,500 to $7,000. That’s just bad speechwriting. More than anything, though, McCain fell flat because he was delivering a post-partisan call for change to a rabidly partisan crowd. The delegates in St. Paul were the kind of Republicans who went wild when McCain called for judges “who don’t legislate from the bench,” not when he attacked Republican corruption. Whereas Barack Obama needed to move toward the rest of his party to succeed last week, McCain needed to move away from his, and that ain’t easy at a convention.

McCain finally grasped a way forward by talking more openly than ever before about his experience as a prisoner of war. And no, he didn’t overdo it. By identifying his time as a POW as the crucible that forged his love of country, he moved the delegates behind him. And by connecting his military service to public service, he made a strong bid to move undecided and independent voters behind him, too. “If you find faults with our country, make it a better one,” McCain said. “Enlist in our armed forces. Become a teacher. Enter the ministry. Run for public office … Defend the rights of the oppressed. Our country will be the better, and you will be the happier. Because nothing brings greater happiness in life than to serve a cause greater than yourself.” As he spoke those words, McCain’s entire body language changed — his stiffness ebbed, his eyes sparkled, and adrenaline led him to shout his coda — “Fight with me, fight with me” — straight through the cheers of the crowd.

Unlike just about anything else that came out of St. Paul, McCain’s closing words were a throwback to his 2000 campaign, when he grounded his call for Republican morality in national honor rather than Christian fundamentalism. They saved the night. The big question now is whether he can work them into the rest of the scorched-earth race he’s running in 2008.