St. Paul, Minn.–Yesterday afternoon, when Sen. John McCain descended the stairs of his flying “Straight Talk Express” onto the tarmac in Minneapolis, greeted by members of his family as well as his running-mate Alaska Gov. Sarah Palin, 44, and her family, he walked out onto what had become very rough ground.
Since the start of his current presidential bid, McCain has emphasized experience and presented national security as the overwhelming issue. The voting public responded to both points.
But with his surprise pick of relatively inexperienced Palin as vice president on Friday, the once sharp focus of McCain’s campaign has become fuzzy. His campaign is now stressing reform — Palin’s supposed strength — over issues that brought McCain the GOP nomination. More important, the opportunity that had once glimmered before him — to help rebuild the battered brand of the Republican Party — seems lost.
Illustration by: Matt Mahurin
As a result, the challenges facing the one-time maverick when he takes the stage at the Xcel Center tonight look even bigger. McCain must regain control of his campaign’s narrative and also assure the nation that whatever remains of the GOP brand forged by Ronald Reagan is applicable at a time of increasing economic despair at home and two seemingly never-ending wars abroad. In addition, many issues of national concern today — including health-care reform and the environment — have not been strong points for the GOP. In short, McCain faces a task as great as, if not greater than, his Democratic rival, Sen. Barack Obama, did when he stood before 75,000 people at Invesco Field in Denver.
“The party that was formed during the Reagan years was based on being hawkish on foreign policy and smaller government” said David R. Gergen, a former White House adviser to presidents Richard M. Nixon, Gerald R. Ford, Reagan and Bill Clinton who is now director of the Center for Public Leadership at Harvard’s John F. Kennedy School of Government. “And he supports all of that philosophy. But I think the problem is that the issues facing the country are totally different. People are concerned about climate change, about affordable health care and the party hasn’t come to grips with these issues. In many ways, the public views the Democrats as being closer to those issues.
“He needs to regain control of his campaign,” Gergen said, talking about what this GOP almost-nominee should do in his acceptance speech. “The campaign is losing focus. He launched this campaign saying terrorism is the transcendent issue of our time and that he was the man with the experience to handle that issue.
“Now, because he picked Palin, the focus has shifted more towards reforming Washington,” Gergen said, “while moving away from the foreign-policy and experience argument. The strength of his campaign was foreign policy and the idea of grown-ups being in charge — and he can’t emphasize those because of her. Also, the concerns have shifted. It’s about the economy. Issues like Iraq and terrorism are still important — but what everyone cares about is economics.”
Like Reagan in 1980, McCain comes to the stage tonight wearing the mantle of an outsider — though the Arizona senator has sought to tie himself to the values of the conservative Republican brand over the last eight years. He is still considered the man who once took on the evangelical wing, calling its leaders “agents of intolerance” — though he has now opted for a running mate sure to please that wing of the party. He is constantly named as the man willing to reach across the aisle, the pragmatist who understands that our world cannot be perfected but, through compromise and hard work can certainly be improved. This reputation survives despite the fact that during this campaign, he has regularly turned right whenever that was required.
The Reagan historian Lou Cannon disagreed with my Gipper comparison, but echoed many of Gergen’s sentiments. “One of the oddities of this election,” Cannon noted, “is McCain is hurt by the issue he was most right about. The war has gone better by any definition — from those who supported it from the onset to those who were completely opposed to it. But, in an odd way, the war has gone just well enough to take it out of the public consciousness. It’s not the bleeding sore you have to deal with daily. It’s not in the headlines.”
Cannon explained that economic woes never help a party seeking to hold onto the White House. “Enough people are hurting or are anxious about the economy,” Cannon said, “and that issue doesn’t work for a party in power. It didn’t work for Herbert Hoover and it didn’t work for Jimmy Carter. The Democrats simply have been more coherent on the issue. When it comes to the economy, McCain’s a blank slate. The issues he’s banked his campaign on are not the issues that are working for him.”
Thus McCain, who is still, remarkably, in a dead-heat with Obama according to many polls, seems in a bind worthy of magician David Blaine. He had placed his whole campaign on the strength of a nation’s fears over national security and trust in his experience, both in combat and in the decades he’s spent in Washington.
But, by choosing Palin, he undermined those very strengths, which in the long view can no longer be viewed as strengths when applied to this chapter of American life. If he chooses to return to the points he launched his campaign on, he runs a double risk. Not only could he be called out for picking someone without the chops to take his place on day one; he could alienate a public whose primary concerns right now have simply not been his priority. Yes, his campaign needs to refind itself, to refocus. But he cannot return to the same playbook.
While the Xcel Center crowd might well be jammed with GOP delegates fired up by McCain’s choice for vice president, it’s not this crowd he has to win over. It’s the audience watching in Hamilton, Ohio, and Colorado Springs and Butte, Mont.
And campaign strategists and analysts from both the GOP and the Democrats say McCain can indeed pivot from his earlier issues to present a strong message for the general election. He could move forward from the theme of national security and use his already familiar personal story– laid out dramatically by the former actor and courtroom orator, Fred Thompson, on Tuesday — as the framework for how he could rebuild that nation. After all, he had to rebuild his body and his life after five years of torture by the North Vietnamese.
“People still think of him as more experienced and with more significant achievements,” said Ed Rollins, the national campaign director for Reagan’s 1984 triumphant campaign and the national campaign chairman for Gov. MikeHuckabee’s recent primary run. “He can’t compete with Barack Obama’s speech, he just can’t. He just has to be solid and articulate what he’s going to do for the next three-to-four-years in office.”
And while Rollins might seem an appropriate adviser for the GOP almost-nominee, perhaps equal counsel was offered by David Kusnet, Bill Clinton’s chief speech-writer for the 1992 campaign and for the first two years of the Clinton White House. Kusnet also said McCain has to move forward with his acceptance speech.
“Presumably every other speaker, in addition to the video, will refer to his personal biography and heroism,” Kunset said. “That’s much better than having him do it. He would be best served if he would borrow a successful technique from Obama; move the most emotionally moving points to the very end of his speech, and put it only in passing — as Obama did when he reflected in Martin Luther King Jr.’s ‘I Have a Dream Speech’ last Thursday.
“By doing this, you create this compelling tension which will keep people listening,” Kusnet said. “It’s a tension that creates attention because people are expecting you to say that. I do expect him to relate the two great themes of his campaign — the need for the United States to defend itself against terrorism and the need to reform the political system. And he can find an emotional connection to these by talking about his experience at the end.
“If I was working for him, I’d have him stress not his life as POW, but his life afterwards,” Kusnet said. “He has an experience that very few native-born Americans have had: an opportunity to discover America all over again. He came back after great trauma to find an America that had changed in many good ways while he was gone. He had that chance for rediscovery and that’s what he should focus on.”
It is a truism that McCain cannot match Obama on the stage, cannot create the kind of spectacle seen last week in Denver. But he has to find “it.” He must find a speech that can, asObama did, identify the kind of president he will be, the kind of White House he will run.
Big speeches are the worst platform for McCain — far from the intimate town halls he loves. He cannot mimic the fierce and great rhetoric his counterpart has at his disposal. Instead, McCain must elevate the strong rapport he has with small audiences to the grand stage. Should he do that, he would help bridge the perceived gap he has with the “so-called” everyman when it comes to issues of day-to-day life. The bar is high. But he has met challenges before.