Gerson, Waldman on the GOP Convention Rhetoric

John McCain's acceptance speech had significant strengths, particularly as it moved toward its end. McCain emphasized his brokenness in captivity—not his endurance and success—as a source of wisdom. And this vulnerability, from a proud and difficult man, gave his personal story renewed power, causing tears in the hall. McCain is not a great speaker, but he can be a good storyteller—and tonight he told his American story in a creative, emotional, authentic way.

McCain's expression of "respect" and "admiration" for Senator Obama was generous and refreshing. His criticism of Republican failures and excesses during the last eight years was necessary and convincing—who believes that McCain was happy with Republican leadership in that period? And his overarching theme of reform—fighting for average Americans against entrenched interests in the spirit of Teddy Roosevelt—is exactly the message he needs to drive home.

But the problem was the policy. McCain recalled past epic battles against big tobacco, drug companies, union bosses and assorted enemies of the public interest. But looking forward, his proposals were typical and uninspired. Vetoing pork-barrel spending? School choice? Nuclear power and offshore drilling? It is possible to make a case for each of these ideas. But it cannot be said they add new pages to the Republican playbook. Doesn't anyone sitting in McCain strategy sessions raise their hand and insist, "This policy is weak"? Doesn't anyone ask, "Will independents and moderates find these ideas striking and appealing?" Where is the policy ambition and creativity?

It is the burden of the reformer to propose actual reforms. It is John McCain's particular burden to prove he is not a typical Republican in practical and specific ways. In both cases, McCain's response tonight was incomplete.

This does not mean the speech was a flop or a failure. McCain set out his overarching theme of fighting reform and told his amazing personal story—and many Americans will find both compelling. But the policy in tonight's speech was frankly disappointing. As this campaign proceeds, he will need to do better.

After all that, after Sarah Barracuda and Obama's epic poem, John McCain gave a speech that was disjointed, sometimes strikingly independent, mostly flat.

McCain seemed fully aware of his political imperative: distance himself from a presidency widely regarded as a failure. The strategy is, to borrow a phrase, audacious. It requires courage and uncommon focus to pull off. Instead, he repeatedly flinched from taking the argument to its logical and lethal conclusion, torn between winning over the crowd and denouncing it.

We heard flashes of strength. McCain opened with a twinge of Truman: "We're going to win this election!" (Truman added in 1948, "and make these Republicans like it—don't you forget that!" McCain left that out.) Like FDR, he declared, "I hate war." There were a few passages of sustained eloquence—a smidgen of  "America is an idea" here, a dollop of American exceptionalism there. It is hard to analyze the poetry, since there wasn't much of it.

Most striking was the passage scalding the Republican Party for its past lassitude. In recent decades, Democratic nominees have felt it necessary to insist they are not like other Democrats. Obama, less popular than his party, set out to prove that he was, in fact, like other Democrats. Like Democrats of yore, McCain's task was to show he was a "different kind of Republican." His audience did not seem delighted to serve as foils for a "Sister Souljah" moment. To a sullen silence, McCain declared, "I fight to restore the pride and principles of our party. We were elected to change Washington, and we let Washington change us. We lost the trust of the American people when some Republicans gave in to the temptations of corruption."

Making a break is part of the ritual of conventions: Al Gore announced he was his "own man," and Hubert Humphrey waited until weeks before the election to open any daylight between himself and LBJ on Vietnam. I can't remember a nominee working so hard to push away the sitting president of his own party. Note that his distancing from his party does not go so far as setting out a new or more centrist agenda. He generally advances orthodox Republican policies. In that way, McCain missed a signal moment. Reform remained a lofty generality.

He attacked partisan rancor (though he shrank from a serious analysis of why there is such discord). Such discord happens, he said, when "people work for themselves, not you." At the risk of being a churlish former speechwriter, that's just rhetoric. What really has caused Washington to go so far off track? What is the role of big money in politics? McCain has built a real record as a reformer in years past, but he did not spell out the next phase of change. Denouncing rancor may appeal, and may poll well with swing voters, but after the vitriolic speeches by Rudy Giuliani and (with a smile and a pout) Sarah Palin, rancor definitely had an Honored Guest pass at the convention.

I have seen polling suggesting the key to the election is whether Obama can tag McCain as four more years of Bush's policies. It would seem as if both Obama and McCain have read the same poll.

Finally, I have a qualm about the first-person narrative at the end. John McCain was a heroic POW—did you know that? It takes away nothing from his heroism to say that it was undignified and a little sad for him to go on about it at such length. Sometimes much less is much more. Did FDR dwell on his polio in 1932? Did JFK tell the story of PT-109 in 1960? No. It is an ineluctable sign of the decline of American leadership that candidates feel compelled to endlessly repeat their own life story, over and over. I realize that my old boss Bill Clinton played his role in this trend, but it didn't start with him, and it has gotten much worse. Somehow, I don't expect McCain to stop talking about his POW experience—nor do I expect his campaign to stop huffily insisting that it would never, ever politicize his suffering.

Sarah Palin's Big Night
Posted 1:15 a.m. ET, Sept. 4

Tonight, we witnessed something extraordinary - not merely the rhetorical triumph of an embattled candidate, but the emergence of a Republican folk hero.  With her tough, skilled, sophisticated, humorous performance, Sarah Palin has become the symbol of a conservative revolt against an establishment that dismissed her as a rube.  She took on the politicians and pundits, the Washington herd and the good old boys, and seemed more than equal to them all.  Rather than a female Dan Quayle, Palin was Annie Oakley and Joan of Arc wrapped into one. 

In the hall at the Xcel Center, Palin was greeted with wild, whooping cheers - cheers that felt like defiance against every angry leftist and privacy invader in the media. (The CNN booth on the floor, at one point, seemed at risk of assault from the delegates.) But over the course of the speech, defiance was transformed into enthusiasm for Palin herself.  From the first moment, she was assured and comfortable in the spotlight.  She delivers tough lines with the twinkle and skill of a Reagan.  She is a political natural, and will, without doubt, be a major asset for McCain.

And the speech itself was stunningly successful.  Instead of a policy tour du monde, it emphasized an issue - environmental policy - where Palin is fluent.  It hit Obama on a policy issue - taxes - where he is vulnerable.  And the humorous attacks on Obama's pretensions and elitism struck home again and again - the self-designed presidential seal, the Styrofoam Greek columns, the two memoirs but not a single major reform.  All of these were better lines than any line in Obama's acceptance speech.

I watched the speech standing next some 70-something male delegates from Texas.  Their comments started with "She's good."  Then, "She's a keeper." Then, "I hope she is the first woman president."  Near the end, the security guards had started to clap and cheer.

In the course of 40 minutes, Palin completely changed the narrative about herself - from "out of her depth" to "the future of the Republican Party."  Some may remember tonight the way Reagan's 1964 speech was later recalled - as the beginning of a lifelong political love affair.

But most importantly for a vice-presidential nominee, Palin served McCain well.  When she said,  "There is only one man in this election who has really fought for you" - it was the emotional high point of the convention. After her speech, when McCain appeared, many Republicans who had probably never cheered authentically for McCain before, cheered him without reservation.  It was an amazing, memorable political accomplishment.

Tonight we got to see what John McCain glimpsed in his meeting with Sarah Palin.  She is energetic, appealing, much better at reading lines from a Teleprompter than, say, Mitt Romney (who looked deeply annoyed throughout his speech every time was forced to say her name).  Many politicians would have wilted.  She did a good job of making her time of several months as governor of Alaska sound like an epic triumph of public administration.  I can't think of any examples where a secondary speech, such as by a VP or a nominator, turned around an election.  But there are many times where a star turn propelled a political ascent for the person who gave it.  Those Wasilla State of the City addresses must have been fun.

At the same time, except when discussing energy policy, there was a weightlessness to the performance.  Her speech didn't come close to suggesting she is ready to be president or even vice president, or give much of a clue of her own actual beliefs.

Tonally, the speech was repeatedly sarcastic, even nasty toward Obama and Biden - not a policy critique (tax and spend, etc., etc., etc.), but in sharply personal terms.   She licked her lips in a mischievous, self-satisfied way every time she delivered an especially harsh line.  (One well delivered attack: Obama says one thing about working people when he's in Scranton, another in San Francisco.)  No doubt some of the lines don't hold up to much scrutiny, though that is hardly unusual for convention speeches.  After bragging about her own ethics bill in Alaska, she zinged Obama by noting that he had written two memoirs but no major legislation, ignoring his coauthorship of the federal ethics bill.

In keeping with the rest of the convention, she barely mentioned McCain's ideas, plans, or goals for the country. One would have little or no sense of the economic moment. She spoke of reform and the various lobbyists who oppose McCain (presumably she didn't mean Charlie Black), but gave little hint of what, precisely, they would have to fear from his presidency.  McCain could spell out a robust agenda tomorrow, I suppose.  So far we haven't heard anything close.

Two fleeting thoughts on staging.  The slide show behind the speaker is distracting and annoying.   After a while, I began to think it was commenting on the proceedings or even mocking the speaker.    Then there was the crowd. My kids, whose main convention exposure was watching last week's Mile High Stadium event, were startled to see Texas delegates in matching suits and cowboy hats, row upon row of white hair under cowboy hats.  My ten year old, scandalized, looked at the screen and said, "Dad, they're all white." It looked like a colorized C-SPAN retrospective, with Olbermann and Mathews substituting for Huntley and Brinkley.  Just before Palin spoke, men were moved away from the stage, and women pushed in front to cheer.  The networks dutifully then showed mostly women's faces rapturously looking at Palin.  I think the ritual cries of media bias over the past week had their desired effect, as my friend  Brooklyn College professor Eric Alterman puts it, of working the refs.

The quality and appeal of a candidate on a national ticket is ultimately determined by his or her strengths and performance, not the behavior of their teenaged children.  (The natural human response to a mother in Governor Sarah Palin's circumstance is compassion and sympathy, not the cruel derision of the blogs.)  But she remains a relatively unknown quantity, so her debut will be closely watched.

Palin was chosen, not for her gender (though it is historic) or for her conservatism (though conservatives are generally pleased) but because she has been a reformer, who took on the ethically-challenged Republican establishment of Alaska.  And this is precisely what Palin needs to talk about on Wednesday night: an agenda of Republican reform. Her attacks on Obama should be light and humorous—an eye-twinkling likability seems to be one of great advantages as a candidate.  And her praise for McCain should be not only fulsome, but challenging to Republican orthodoxy on issues from climate to campaign finance reform.  Palin can't talk like a typical Republican—or praise McCain as one.

Tonight we hear from the GOP vice presidential nominee—still Gov. Sarah Palin.  Based on her brief remarks in recent days, she is an appealing person, with a spunky vibe.  (As noted, she seems like a "real person" from a candidate's anecdote.)  Beyond that, we have little clue about her views, record or rhetoric, foreign or domestic.  She need only vault over a very low bar—she must do better than Dan Quayle did.  (History tell us Thomas Eagleton never gave an acceptance speech.) She could easily overcome controversy by reveling in her normalcy, as Nixon did with the "Checkers" speech.

Palin's prime appeal is her appeal to the conservative GOP base, so we can expect to hear red state red meat (moose?), as well as "dog whistle" references audible only to fellow Evangelicals. She will also dust off McCain's reformer credentials, taking advantage of an issue left largely unmentioned in Denver.  Tip to Gov. Palin: avoid bridge metaphors.

Arriving earlier today at the Republican convention, I was reminded how cruel is the passage of time in the political world.  Four years ago, I stayed at a suite at the Waldorf; this afternoon I taxied between hotels in search of a misplaced reservation.  At the Xcel Energy Center, I was escorted to my nosebleed, "special press" seat with a close view of the acoustical tiles on the ceiling, and a distant view of every speaker's backside.

On the first real night of the Republican convention, the speakers were varied, to say the least.  Mrs. Bush, with perfect appropriateness, talked about her husband, laying special emphasis on his historic AIDS and malaria initiatives (topics close to my heart).  President Bush, with perfect appropriateness, talked about the nominee.  It was a memorable line to say that McCain has the "heart of a protector."  And with mock exasperation about McCain's independence, the president generously gave McCain permission to emphasize his disagreements with the administration. Apart from the brief mention of the "sunny side of the mountain"—reprise from his own first convention speech—Bush was unsentimental. I noticed he spared few words for Sarah Palin, but those duties seemed to fall to Mrs. Bush, who was warm about the vice presidential nominee.

Sen. Joe Lieberman hardly gave a barnburner, but he has never been a speaker prone to lighting farm buildings. It is not easy to deliver an attack on partisanship at the most partisan event of the political season. And he might have been more effective talking simply and personally about his friend John. But Lieberman—who seems so pleased when he delivers an applause line—is impossible to dislike. And he made one innovative and serious argument—comparing Bill Clinton's willingness to oppose his own party on trade, welfare reform and the budget with Obama's complete lack of courage in this department. 

The speech of the night was given by Fred Thompson, who will never be president, but should play one on TV. He is an enormously effective storyteller, weaving humor and moments of quiet intensity. And McCain has a story worth telling—a story of broken bones and rope torture and solitary confinement and defiance still shocking in its courage. Some personal stories get smaller the closer you approach. McCain's story gets larger. Thompson gave a narrative to McCain's life—a "mixture of rebellion and honor"—that made sense of McCain's entire career. And it was a strong relaunch for a Republican message drowned out, to this point, by high winds and soap operas.

John McCain has an interesting and potentially powerful argument—the argument for reform.  The 19 percent of the voters who cast their ballots for Ross Perot in 1992 remains a decisive swing bloc in American politics, never fully absorbed by either party. The argument is that Obama's "change" is really just a swing to the left; McCain's change is government reform, far more appealing to the "radical center."
Tonight was a tepid and downright weird launch to that daring argument.  
First, the stilted and depressing Max Headroom video from the president of the United States. ("His arms had been broken, but not his honor," followed by a sarcastic little smile.)  Since presidents began going to conventions in 1932, only once—once—has an incumbent president been too unpopular to appear at his own party's gathering: Lyndon Johnson in 1968. (FDR didn't go in 1944 because he was on a "nonpolitical" fact-finding tour; he had an angina attack while phoning in his remarks.) Until now. The idea that George W. Bush is too busy to speak at the convention, or that the planners couldn't figure out a way to squeeze him in, is transparently absurd. It must be a deep humiliation for him. The Obama convention's gibes about McCain representing four years of Bush must really have hit home. (P.S., how could he give a political speech from the White House? When I worked for Bill Clinton, we would have faced a special prosecutor for that.)
Then the neutering of the moderates. We know, from reporting, that Tom Ridge  and Joe Lieberman were McCain's preferred choices for vice president, but were blocked solely because they are pro-choice. Now Rudy Giuliani (who won one delegate) apparently was replaced as keynote speaker in favor of Fred Thompson (who won none). Thompson gave a rambling, folksy, effective and instantly forgettable paean to McCain. 
Joe Lieberman was far more effective.  His most memorable statement was simply being there. Unlike Zell Miller in 2004, there was little anger and no visible spittle. He faintly praised Obama as an eloquent young man, and spoke directly to Democrats who are uncomfortable with their candidate. Casual viewers remember him as Al Gore's running mate; they don't know just how deeply estranged he is from his fellow party members. He praised McCain for taking on "corrupt Republican lobbyists," for being a senator respected by foreign leaders. He said you can count on McCain to be a "restless reformer." It was mostly focused on burnishing McCain's persona (rather than, say, policy issues such as campaign-finance reform).

One of McCain's problems is that his maverick days seem far in the past. You wouldn't know that from hearing Lieberman. The Democrats, by pounding simplistically at the "McCain is Bush" argument, left room for this rejoinder. Possibly more effective would have been for the Denver Democrats to note that McCain once was a maverick but more recently hewed to Bush and Rove.  Again, Lieberman did his job well. This was a glimpse of what would have been a very dangerous choice for Democrats, had McCain prevailed over his own party and picked Lieberman.

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