I hope that the number of Americans who saw John McCain’s speech last night tripled the number who watched Obama’s speech. I pray that every independent voter who wasn’t sure for whom he or she would vote tuned in to watch John McCain. I hope and I pray because it was the worst speech I’ve seen in a long, long time.
Look, I think Palin’s speech was excellent – and have said so in a previous post (despite our polarized political ideology). Biden’s speech was enough to get the job done, but it didn’t leave me inspired. Obama’s speech was great. John McCain absolutely failed.
Here’s the analysis:
Let’s forget about the most obvious mistake: an enormous pictoral backdrop of a mega-mansion behind a speaker who doesn’t know how many houses he owns; a house so large that the giant lawn looked like a broken green-screen whenever the camera closed in on McCain’s face, which was 70% of the time.
Let’s forget about McCain’s inability to read or speak with any kind of grace or fluidity. That’s not his fault, and in contrast to his oratorically gifted opponent, there’s not much sense in trying to make this a strength. If anything, McCain picks up a few points by painting himself as a straight-talker, prone to make mistakes.
Let’s forget about the Code Pink activists who interrupted McCain’s speech several times. Even if these wild interruptions didn’t unnerve McCain, he was forced to deal with them, twice. While the protestations were out of his control, they made us all cringe – twice, and that’s not good for McCain.
Instead, let’s look at the content of the speech. McCain makes two mistakes, each large enough to cost him the election:
Mistake #1: Two Roads.
Last week, the addition of Gov. Palin to the GOP ticket seemed to be a clear nod to the conservative base of the GOP. Last night, the message of independent reformer seemed to be a clear nod to the moderate base; obviously an appeal to independents and undecideds. By trying to appeal to both, McCain chooses an extremely narrow path to victory: assume the mantle of an extremely conservative ticket that’s focused on bipartisan reform.
There’s a slim chance that he could pull this off, but doing so would require extraordinarily tight control over message, something McCain has been unable to do so far. By November, there won’t be too many undecided voters who will accept that the GOP ticket is – at the same time – a wolf and a sheep. By contrast, Obama has total control over his message, and has carved out a much larger path to victory.
Mistake #2: Admission of Guilt
At several points in the speech, McCain flatly admits the failings of the Republican party. At first, this seems like the language of a brave reformer who is not bound by party ideology, but at some point he starts sounding like someone who is all too willing to highlight the failures of eight years of Republican leadership. I’ve selected some text from the speech to illustrate this pattern (note that these are excerpts – this was not delivered as a solid block of text):
I’ve fought corruption, and it didn’t matter if the culprits were Democrats or Republicans. They violated their public trust, and had to be held accountable. I’ve fought big spenders in both parties, who waste your money on things you neither need nor want, while you struggle to buy groceries, fill your gas tank and make your mortgage payment. I’ve fought to get million dollar checks out of our elections. I’ve fought lobbyists who stole from Indian tribes. I fought crooked deals in the Pentagon. I fought tobacco companies and trial lawyers, drug companies and union bosses.
I fight for Bill and Sue Nebe from Farmington Hills, Michigan, who lost their real estate investments in the bad housing market. Bill got a temporary job after he was out of work for seven months. Sue works three jobs to help pay the bills.
I fight to restore the pride and principles of our party. We were elected to change Washington, and we let Washington change us. We lost the trust of the American people when some Republicans gave in to the temptations of corruption. We lost their trust when rather than reform government, both parties made it bigger.
We lost their trust when instead of freeing ourselves from a dangerous dependence on foreign oil, both parties and Senator Obama passed another corporate welfare bill for oil companies. We lost their trust, when we valued our power over our principles.
My fellow Americans, when I’m President, we’re going to embark on the most ambitious national project in decades. We are going to stop sending $700 billion a year to countries that don’t like us very much. We will attack the problem on every front. We will produce more energy at home. We will drill new wells offshore, and we’ll drill them now. We will build more nuclear power plants. We will develop clean coal technology. We will increase the use of wind, tide, solar and natural gas. We will encourage the development and use of flex fuel, hybrid and electric automobiles.
Had McCain not spent the last two decades serving as a Senator, it might be possible for him to trash both sides of the isle, but I don’t think too many voters will be willing to suspend their belief that McCain isn’t already entrenched in the group of policymakers that led us to this point.
In some ways, McCain is trying to do exactly what Palin claims to have done. Her story as governor is clear: she was an inexperienced maverick who was willing to expose corruption and failed policy on both sides of the isle. This worked for her because she was not part of the establishment. McCain is, and there’s not much he can do to change that. If McCain is going to go after Washington, he’s going to have to emphasize the number of times he has broken with his party, and he doesn’t have much to work with.
Obama was smart to cast McCain as a sequel to the Bush administration, and there is simply too much evidence that McCain embraces and supports the Bush crowd for him to pretend otherwise. I suspect that there are many – like me – who watched this speech and wondered why he chose to be something other than what he is.
In the end, this speech may serve only to further split the GOP into warring factions who cannot decide whether McCain is a moderate or a conservative, a maverick or a henchman, a reformer or performer. Those who have yet to decide will struggle to see how McCain is anything other than an unknown variable, subject to control by the many strings of the people he’s trying to impress.