How do you run for president as the candidate of the party of an unpopular president? We had one answer last year from Nicolas Sarkozy of France, who had actually served in the cabinet of the widely detested incumbent Jacques Chirac. He campaigned as the candidate of change who would reform France's headed-toward-bankruptcy welfare state. We had another answer from John McCain this week in St. Paul. The steps include:
First, arrange for a hurricane headed toward New Orleans. George W. Bush's perceived mishandling of Hurricane Katrina hammered his job ratings, and he never recovered. Devastation of New Orleans a second time in three years would be disastrous for the Republican Party. Not knowing where the hurricane would make landfall, and with no reason for confidence that the levees would hold, the McCain campaign had no choice but to effectively cancel the first day of the convention. In a couple of hours, the convention actually adopted a credentials report, wrote rules (including one authorizing a delegate selection commission), and approved a platform that was, unusually, not dictated by the presidential nominee. But television was not going to cover these things, and it's as if they didn't happen. What was more important was what really didn't happen. George W. Bush and Dick Cheney canceled their Monday night appearances. Cheney never did appear and, so far as I can make out, wasn't mentioned for the rest of the week. Bush, the party's incumbent president, did make an eight-minute videoconference appearance on Tuesday night, sandwiched between live appearances of his widely popular wife, just before the broadcast network's one hour of prime-time coverage began. Meanwhile, Hurricane Gustav hit west of New Orleans, Republican Gov. Bobby Jindal performed impressively, and the levees held.
Second, nominate a candidate for vice president who is as far away from Washington and the inside-the-beltway mentality as possible. Team McCain had the good sense (or luck) to do this around noon Friday, which perhaps diminished the impact of Barack Obama's acceptance speech the night before in the tracking polls conducted in the early evening, and to alight on the governor of Alaska and former mayor of Wasilla, Sarah Palin. Palin made a splendid appearance on Friday, serving as a matador cape to mainstream media, which loathes the idea of a pro-life female candidate whom they've never heard of and set about to do a Clarence Thomas-like hatchet job on her. Palin made no public appearances: Let the cape keep flapping and leave the bulls (steers? cows?) running around. A betting line was established among the press on when she would be forced off the ticket.
Third, once the hurricane had passed, feature a couple of pretty good speeches for Tuesday night. I'm told that none of the Republican officeholders whose speeches were canceled offered much objection, as some Democratic officeholders I've known over the years would have done (want to get in between Chuck Schumer and a TV camera?); they realize that no one in the hall pays any attention and no one in the world beyond sees them but ultrafaithful C-SPAN viewers. Fred Thompson warmed up the crowd with a dramatic narration of the imprisonment and torture of John McCain (I learned things I did not know and was moved). Joe Lieberman presented a sober appeal to independents and Democrats watching on TV (they had to televise at least one speech) to support McCain and presented the first praise of Bill Clinton I have heard at a Republican National Convention. Meanwhile, the cape was still fluttering and the geldings were preparing to finish off Palin.
Fourth, have Sarah Palin give the most electrifying and fearless speech I've ever heard from a vice presidential nominee. And make sure that 37 million households would watch it, thanks to the mad flapping of the mainstream-media matador capes. She finessed a TelePrompTer malfunction just about as smoothly as Franklin Roosevelt, having dropped his speech text when he fell, reshuffled the pages of his speech text when he was speaking to a stadium crowd at the 1936 Democratic convention. McCain campaign honcho Steve Schmidt announced Wednesday he was sick of answering questions of how thoroughly had Palin been vetted. (How thoroughly did John Kennedy vet Lyndon Johnson in 1960? Did he know about all his business deals and handling of campaign cash?)
When I asked campaign manager Rick Davis on the floor Thursday night about how McCain had spotted Palin's talents—a more friendly version of the questions Schmidt was sick of answering—he said they had looked at lots of things, including the YouTube.com videos of her speeches and debates that I watched till too-late hours on Monday and Tuesday nights. She is clearly a political natural, a rare talent, a hitherto unknown orator who sprang into the national consciousness as suddenly as William Jennings Bryan (then a 36-year-old former Congressman from Nebraska) did at the Democratic convention in 1896. (I wasn't covering that convention but am told my grandmother Darcy heard Bryan speak in Detroit.) The Palin choice was a gamble, but not a thoughtless one: Just as a skilled card-counter can beat the odds in blackjack, one who is skilled in evaluating political talent can beat the odds in selecting a veep. Note that Palin's speech featured brilliant skewering of Barack Obama and made no (or virtually no) mention of George W. Bush. It was the speech of an out-party nominee, one from a place as far from the nation's capital as it is possible to be and still be in the United States. And with that grand Pacific Northwest/Alaska variant on the Midwestern accent that is, or should be recognized as, standard English.
Fifth, have John McCain deliver on Thursday night a speech that didn't have the same electrifying effect and was judged by those in the hall (from the nonrandom sample I queried) as less effective than Palin's but nonetheless advanced the McCain campaign's themes of change and reform. McCain did set out some specific policies that have huge institutional or partisan opposition in Washington—school choice, energy independence, tax cuts—as well as others with the potential of winning the bipartisan support he pledges to seek—worker retraining, national service. But much of the speech was pure John McCain. His account of his imprisonment in Vietnam was all the more moving for his soft-spoken delivery: The audience in the hall was silent, and so I bet were a lot of people at home watching on their TVs. His insistence that politicians must act to seek honor rather than to maximize political gain—as soldiers are supposed to do—continue to strike me as being as hopelessly naïve as they are politically appealing. But his insistence that he is only seeking to serve his nation—"Country First"—rings pretty much true. His list of specific individuals facing economic hardship was far shorter than those advanced at the Democratic convention in Denver, and so seemed perfunctory. But his professions that he really does care for people encountering difficulties may be persuasive to some.
Sixth, this convention has been a pivot from McCain's previous emphasis on experience (undercut, at least marginally, by his selection of Palin, just as Obama's emphasis on change was undercut, at least marginally, by his selection of Joe Biden) toward two other themes. One is energy independence and the Democrats' slavish and mind-dead insistence that we must not allow oil drilling offshore (a position that the governor of Florida and the Santa Barbara Board of Supervisors have abandoned). The other is that McCain and Palin would be maverick reformers in Washington. As Sarkozy (whose political base is the super-high-income suburb of Neuilly) argued he would be a maverick reformer in Paris. It worked for Sarkozy. Will it work for McCain?