THE PLANK SEPTEMBER 5, 2008
Alan Brinkley--who is the provost and a professor of history at Columbia University, as well as a National Book Award-winning author--will be writing for us throughout the Republican convention.
There was a back-to-the-future quality to this year's Republican convention, at no time more so than on the last night. Almost all of the convention (other than its mostly-suspended first night) echoed the harsh, resentful, and even vindictive undercurrent that has dominated Republican politics for the last thirty years--nowhere more clearly than in Palin's gleeful skewering of Obama based not on any concrete issues, but on supposed cultural differences. And then there was McCain, who in his acceptance speech tried mostly to be the good cop and let the bad cops do the dirty work. This is little different from the Bush-Rove-Cheney strategy. Bush himself did not often take on the right-wing evangelical issues that were, in fact, the key to his victory in 2004. He let others do the dirty work.
McCain's delivery was notably flat, especially compared to the sarcastic, combative, hopped-up delivery of Sarah Palin. I was astonished to see the first ten minutes of the speech against a drab green background--verdant fields on the big screen in the convention hall, but just a sour green on the small screen. The crowd--virtually all-white, mostly male--was fairly subdued, and comments afterward were almost ruefully positive. Palin addressed the issues they really cared about; McCain did "what he had to do."
Although McCain talked about a few families in trouble, he offered nothing much in the way of a solution to their problems. This convention--and to a large degree McCain's speech--was about two things: the Iraq war and the culture wars.
On the surface, the repeated accounts of McCain's ordeal as a prisoner of war were tributes to his strength and character--and no one can dispute the hardships he endured and the courage he displayed. But the omnipresence of this issue was also meant to buttress McCain's unyielding support for the Iraq War and his refusal to back away from his long-time position that, to quote Douglas MacArthur, "There is no substitute for victory." He has never accepted even President Bush's muted support for a timetable for withdrawal. He said virtually nothing about Afghanistan and Pakistan. When he warned about the dangers of Al Qaeda, he turned immediately to Iran. (Was there, perhaps, also an effort to reach out to evangelicals with the repeated, gruesome descriptions of McCain's repeated experiences of abuse as if they were stations of the cross?)
McCain himself stayed mostly away from the culture wars, but the rest of the convention was about almost nothing else. Palin was the most visible carrier of that message, but it was part of almost every speech this week. "The angry left," "the liberal media," "radical feminism," "Ivy League elitism," and on and on, just like every Republican convention since the 1960s.
Will all this work--stirring up the base with the old refrains, while attracting voters from the center with his own independent, moderate image, which he did much to buttress in his speech? Not, I suspect, if he spends his time as he did over much of the summer, doing nothing but attacking and ridiculing Obama. But this could work if McCain's campaign can develop the competence and discipline it notably lacked during much of the period since he clinched the nomination--and if the Obama campaign does not fight back effectively, as, so far, it has only occasionally done.