Friday, September 5, 2008

McCain's Testimonial to the Independent Voter

Even though he had one day less than Obama did in his convention (because of Gustav), McCain's convention bounce was equal to Obama's. 60 days to Election Day, a CBS poll reports that McCain and Obama are tied 42-42. Obama's lead on McCain with independents has shrunk from 6 to 3 points in one week.

Senator John McCain did this by speaking mainly to independents last night. After fumbling for months to find the right pitch to rally his base and still appeal to independents, McCain found his solution this week in the division of labor between Palin and himself. By picking Palin to energize the base, he could continue to be the maverick that he has always been more comfortable being.

Because independents care not for parties but for personalities, McCain's speech last night was a spoken personal statement to the American voter for his fitness for the Oval Office. This was less a speech about specifically where he would take America but a general speech about why he, not Obama, should take the lead. As such, there was very little policy substance in the speech, in contrast to Obama's speech in Denver. (Recall that the McCain campaign had forced Obama down the path of more detail in his acceptance speech because of the ongoing Republican charge that Obama, the celebrity, was all talk and no substance.) Deftly inserted in the middle and driest part of the speech, McCain quickly disposed of energy, education, the global economy, Georgia, Russia, and Iraq. But these were not the main focus of his speech.

Instead, McCain sought to (1) confess the failures of his party, (2) divorce himself from his party as much as he could, and to (3) reconstitute the frame used to describe him - that he is not a creature of his party but his own man.

(1) McCain divorced himself from his party and the failures of the Bush administration by rejecting the "constant partisan rancor" in Washington, and implicitly attacking some of his colleagues (together with Obama) as "people (who) go to Washington to work for themselves." In so doing, he conceded the failings of his party before his party - a crucial act of contrition that independents want to hear and the premise for the rest of his speech.

(2) Then he moved on to lay out his maverick credentials. Insofar as his party was guilty, he was the least guilty among them: so he repeated his attacks on pork-barrel spending bills, he reminded his audience that he defended the surge when most didn't, he boldly addressed the touchy issue of immigration when he declared that "the latina daughter of migrant workers" is God's child too. He gave notice to congressional Democrats that "change is coming" by way of his fiesty and reformist vice-president, and in so doing grafted his "maverick" status with the "change" message that has resounded throughout this election season. By mentioning "change" 10 times, the maverick of the Republican party was trying to wrestle away Obama's mantle and to declare it as his own.

(3) Having set himself apart from a damaged party, McCain focused the majority of his speech on building and reciting his personal ethos. McCain told us that "the party of Lincoln, Roosevelt, and Reagan is going to get back to basics." What are the basics? It is the idea of a man and his love for his country. McCain invited his audience to judge him as an individual and as a patriot, and not a creature of his unpopular party. Thus the last part of McCain's speech focussed powerfully on his experience as a POW. He argued that age and experience have not tarnished him the way experience in Washington tarnished, say, Joe Biden. "I have the record and the scars to prove it; Senator Obama does not," McCain told us.

McCain's scars, according to him, are proof that he is a fighter, and a seasoned one. After the war, McCain wasn't his own man any more, as he put it, "I was my country's." "My country saved me ... and I will fight for her as long as I draw breath. So help me God." He invited the independent voter to join his crusade: "Stand up and fight ...we are Americans ... we never hide from history ... we make history."

If liberal patriotism is fueled by guilt of how the country has fallen short of its ideals and conservative patriotism is fueled by pride in American exceptionalism, McCain's call to fight for a better America combines both impulses that will prove appealing to independent voters. If McCain convinces enough voters that the City on a Hill is both a promise and a reality, then he will move into the White House next January.

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