U.S. News asked speechwriters from past Republican administrations to weigh in with their thoughts on John McCain's acceptance speech. Clark S. Judge wrote speeches for Ronald Reagan.
Republican nominee-to-be John McCain has a chance to redefine the 2008 presidential race on Thursday—if his convention acceptance speech lives up to the standard set so far by his surprisingly astute campaign.
This astuteness was on particular display last Friday, when the senator introduced his running mate, Alaska Gov. Sarah Palin. Coming hours after Barack Obama's Invesco Field extravaganza—complete with celebrity entertainers and fireworks (balloon drops are so old politics)—the McCain announcement almost entirely reversed the momentum behind what television analysts said was the most watched convention address ever. Within little more than half a day, the media seemed barely able to remember anything the Democratic nominee had told his mile-high crowd. Yet despite its superb timing and execution, the Palin rollout was only part a larger initiative.
Most commentators focused, initially at least, on the new vice presidential candidate's gender. Team McCain made no secret of its hope to win over disappointed Clinton supporters. Throughout the Democratic convention, they had filled the nation's TV screens with ads inviting Clintonites to bolt. But while the gender factor shook up the contest and gave the media an easily understood story line, redefining the 2008 contest requires something entirely different.
A simple fact informs every move of both parties this year. For what is now the longest period in polling history, when asked if the nation is on the right or wrong tack, most interviewees say "wrong track." This is the root of Obama's "Bush equals McCain" mantra. Your discontent, he tells his crowds, stems from the occupant of the White House. There is no government but the Republican Bush administration and Senator McCain is its disciple.
When faced with an unhappy electorate, parties in power and their nominees typically revert to denial. Things aren't that bad, they insist—not nearly as bad as you think, and they're getting better. "Turning the corner," "light at the end of the tunnel"—we've all heard the desperate metaphors. Former Sen. Phil Gramm's "nation of whiners" remark fit the mold of this long and futile tradition. It is hard to think of any campaign in such circumstances that has not tried to shout back the waves of public sentiment—or of any that has succeeded.
McCain—who fired Gramm almost as soon as the whiner quip was out of his mouth—has set a totally different course. In ads and speeches, he has embraced the public's discontent. "Washington is broken. John McCain knows it," announces one of his most frequently run spots. In picking for his vice president, a Republican who has built her career on fighting corruption and cronyism in her own state's Republican Party, McCain set the stage for arguing, in contrast to Obama, that the source of our discontent is not this or that passing administration, but the insider game played by both congressional parties. He is poised to maintain that only an administration led by reformers of proven tenacity, strength, and experience in confronting the creeping corruption of persistent power—who won't spare any malefactor of either party—can make the system work again.
But if he is in fact to redefine the election this way, McCain must develop his message of insider blame and outsider reform personally and in detail before the American people. And the only place he or any candidate can make a thematic move of that magnitude is in his convention acceptance speech.
Unwittingly, Obama has given McCain enormous openings.
In Delaware Sen. Joe Biden, Senator Obama selected an insider's insider as his running mate, someone so much of the old boy crowd that he felt compelled to call out a not entirely appropriate bon ami to Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid at the end of one of his convention appearances.
More telling, for all its elegance and eloquence and despite a few rhetorical tweaks to disguise the banality of its substance, Obama's stage-managed-to-the-hilt acceptance speech could have been delivered by almost any Democratic presidential contender of the last quarter century. Indeed, in retrospect, all the glamour and pyrotechnics may have been intended—much like the smoke and screens of the Wizard of Oz—to disguise how little was at all postpartisan about the man (in this case) in front of the curtain. Barack Obama is indisputably a transformative figure—but for his person, not his program. In his program, he is entirely a creature of the Democratic Party's old-line establishment.
So, this is John McCain's challenge on Thursday: Make the beyond-partisanship theme of reform so full, real, and urgent that the campaigns of both parties revolve around it. That's a lot to ask, but, judging from his astuteness to date, he is fully up to the task.
Clark S. Judge is managing director of the White House Writers Group, Inc. and a former speechwriter to President Reagan.