U.S. News asked speechwriters from past Republican administrations to weigh in with their thoughts on John McCain's acceptance speech. Lee W. Huebner wrote speeches for Richard Nixon.
The good news for Sen. John McCain, if he gives a traditional acceptance speech this week, is that no one would expect him to win a head-to-head oratorical contest with Sen. Barack Obama. In fact, his campaign has already tried to kindle a national suspicion that something must be wrong if you speak too well. On the other hand, you don't come as far or last as long as McCain has done without being an adequate and often effective public speaker—TelePrompTer or no TelePrompTer. If Obama is burdened with inflated rhetorical expectations, McCain is blessed with deflated ones.
More than that, convention speeches—like conventions themselves—are less important than they once were. (And Hurricane Gustav will accelerate that trend.) There was a time when conventions actually launched the presidential campaign and introduced nonincumbent candidates to the country. But this year, the conventions are mid- or even late-campaign events. Media junkies still make the most of every convention nuance, but the general public, after a year of candidate-watching, is less impressionable. Post-convention bounce is no longer a reasonable expectation.
Even at the start of the campaign, John McCain was one of the country's best-known politicians. And he enjoys one other advantage as he enters the fall season. While the Democratic convention succeeded on two big counts—forging party unity and brightening Obama's presidential aura—it made only the slightest of lasting dents in McCain's image, especially among independent voters whose role will be critical this November.
One can understand the Democratic temptation to talk endlessly last week about the failures of the incumbent administration. Rarely has there been an easier target. On the other hand, McCain is uniquely well positioned to step clear of President George W. Bush's shadow. This is not to deny that McCain's "maverick" image has been blurred as he has pursued Republican unity. Nonetheless, that branding has been so strong, for so long, that it should not be so terribly hard to restore. It may be inconvenient for McCain that 90 percent of his recent Senate votes, many on routine, less-consequential matters, have paralleled the Bush position, but this abstract argument has less persuasive power, especially with independent voters, than specific, dramatic memories of the senator's independent impulses.
If a Democratic victory depends on convincing swing voters that McCain is President Bush's twin, that the next four Republican years would look exactly like the last eight, that a vote for McCain is a vote for "more of the same," then the Democrats could have a hard time of it. After a week of fusillades targeted squarely at the Bush-Cheney record, what McCain mostly has to do now is duck.
Moreover, whatever the enormous risks of McCain's vice presidential pick, the choice of Gov. Sarah Palin accomplished two tasks. First, it quieted doubts among hard-core "values" conservatives, whose voices are amplified in a convention setting. (What they wanted, they said, was a place at the table, and Palin puts them there.) Secondly, and more importantly, the choice reinforced McCain's reputation for gutsy (even impulsive) independence. "More of the same?" Not very likely.
The Democrats might have emphasized different lines of argument—including the fact that an administration is more than one man and that Obama, more than McCain, can convincingly promise to clean out the entire system—in order to more effectively persuade independent voters.
If the "up-for-grabs" vote is John McCain's first political priority, his first rhetorical priority should be rehabilitating his independent image. The bad news for McCain would be his need to launch this process before the Republican Party in convention assembled—perhaps among the least sympathetic audiences anywhere for a maverick-centered message. This year, pleasing both the television audience and the arena audience would seem to be a particular daunting challenge.
Richard Nixon, whose positions on many issues also were more centrist than his party's, had an answer to this dilemma. He recognized from the start than winning coalitions can be built most readily around common adversaries. "Failed leadership" was the theme of his 1968 acceptance speech, which was a greater success than his "build on past foundations" speech as incumbent vice president in 1960. Al Gore and George H. W. Bush later faced similar challenges. But in none of these cases was the recent party legacy as difficult a burden as it is today.