Yesterday, I wrote that John McCain had to give a substantially different speech than Sarah Palin did in her debut on the national stage. She needed to show that she could fight back against an onslaught of despicable smears and innuendo coming from the media without playing the victim or getting defensive. McCain needed to sound presidential. Palin needed to introduce herself to the nation; McCain needed to remind people who they already know him to be.
McCain accomplished this in a speech that took a little while to find its heart. Instead of a partisan attack on Barack Obama, McCain aimed a little higher. He sounded a message of reform that reached out to people across the political spectrum, and he challenged everyone — but specifically Republicans — to reform government and the way they do business in politics.
That’s not to say that he didn’t draw distinctions between himself and Obama, but he did so without rancor, a quality he attacked with more vigor than his opponent:
I will keep taxes low and cut them where I can. My opponent will raise them. I will open new markets to our goods and services. My opponent will close them. I will cut government spending. He will increase it.
My tax cuts will create jobs. His tax increases will eliminate them. My health care plan will make it easier for more Americans to find and keep good health care insurance. His plan will force small businesses to cut jobs, reduce wages, and force families into a government run health care system where a bureaucrat stands between you and your doctor. …
Senator Obama wants our schools to answer to unions and entrenched bureaucracies. I want schools to answer to parents and students.
Other than that, McCain didn’t focus on opposition talk at all during his speech. Instead, he focused on his own policies and put forward a positive, detailed vision of a McCain administration, based on one guiding principle: reform. That concept got applied not just to Washington, but also to education, where McCain made a surprising commitment to school choice, one not heard from his campaign for most of this cycle.
The new Republican leader did one critical thing in this speech to the national audience, too. He acknowledged the Republican failures during their control of Congress to act as a reform party. McCain used the moment to challenge his party to reclaim the mantle of reform as an act of penance for the past:
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.
We’re going to change that. We’re going to recover the people’s trust by standing up again for the values Americans admire. The party of Lincoln, Roosevelt and Reagan is going to get back to basics.
This, I think, was absolutely critical to establish credibility. Yesterday, I asked Mitch McConnell about whether the party would accept the challenge of becoming a true reform agent, and he replied that Republicans had always been the party of reform. I understood what he meant, but the answer didn’t acknowledge the GOP lapse when they held power for more than a few years, post-Contract with America. McCain got to the heart of voter skepticism of the Republican brand better than anyone else at this convention, and voters needed that high-level apology for the sins of the past before they could begin to reconsider giving trust again to the GOP.
McCain used this to explain his choice of running mate. Leaving the contrast of Barack Obama’s choice of running mate to the viewer, McCain told America that he needed someone outside the system with a proven record of going after corruption at the risk of party and career to help him accomplish his mission. He also needed someone who didn’t have the stench of the previous Republican failure attached to her for America to trust his desire to accomplish real reform. No other potential candidate has that kind of credibility on reform, and Sarah Palin is McCain’s way of showing American voters he means business.
Most of this, though, didn’t necessarily make an emotional impact. McCain left that to the end, when he drew another implicit but strong contrast between himself and Obama. He told the story of his POW years, not to claim some special status but to explain how the experience humbled and matured him into abandoning his selfishness. Palin talked about a “servant’s heart,” but McCain gave that an emotional timbre that underscored his desire to serve his country rather than any other interest:
I fell in love with my country when I was a prisoner in someone else’s. I loved it not just for the many comforts of life here. I loved it for its decency; for its faith in the wisdom, justice and goodness of its people. I loved it because it was not just a place, but an idea, a cause worth fighting for. I was never the same again. I wasn’t my own man anymore. I was my country’s.
I’m not running for president because I think I’m blessed with such personal greatness that history has anointed me to save our country in its hour of need. My country saved me. My country saved me, and I cannot forget it. And I will fight for her for as long as I draw breath, so help me God.
He then gave a stirring call to service that transformed a quiet, workmanlike speech into something more inspiring, and recalled a spirit that had not yet been seen in this campaign:
I’m going to fight for my cause every day as your President. I’m going to fight to make sure every American has every reason to thank God, as I thank Him: that I’m an American, a proud citizen of the greatest country on earth, and with hard work, strong faith and a little courage, great things are always within our reach. Fight with me. Fight with me.
Fight for what’s right for our country.
Fight for the ideals and character of a free people.
Fight for our children’s future.
Fight for justice and opportunity for all.
Stand up to defend our country from its enemies.
Stand up for each other; for beautiful, blessed, bountiful America.
Stand up, stand up, stand up and fight. Nothing is inevitable here. We’re Americans, and we never give up. We never quit. We never hide from history. We make history.
Thank you, and God Bless you.
The final third of this speech made it memorable, and challenged us — all of us, not just Republicans — to do better, be better, and serve something greater than our own desires. McCain exhorted us to never give up, just as he never gave up, not last summer when his campaign collapsed, not after the 2000 campaign, and not after he broke from the torture of his enemies in a POW camp. Keep fighting for what’s right.
In a word, McCain was presidential. And that’s what the American people needed to see from its candidate.
All in all, I’d call this a very good moment for John McCain. He stuck to his guns, he didn’t make promises he couldn’t keep, and he stayed true to his own vision of America and the policies that come from that vision. While his speech didn’t have the fire and the surprise of Palin’s, it didn’t have to after her triumph on Wednesday.