Thursday, November 18, 2010
THE 2008 REPUBLICAN NATIONAL CONVENTION: John McCain
As much as is possible for two politicians, we have about as a compelling pair of party leaders running for President this year as we can expect. Obama, from humble beginnings and after graduating from Columbia University and Harvard University, became involved in community outreach work, practiced as a civil rights attorney, was elected to the Illinois Senate, taught at the University of Chicago, was eventually elected to the United States Senate, and then became the first black man ever nominated for President by any major political party. McCain, on the other hand, was the son of an Admiral, a graduate of the U.S. Naval Academy, was shot down over Viet Nam and held a prisoner for nearly six years, returned to the navy upon his release, married Cindy McCain, whose father owned a large beer distributorship, was elected to the U.S. Senate in 1982, enjoyed a reputation of being the most politically independent Republican Senator, made an unsuccessful bid for the Republican nomination for President in the year 2000, and finally was nominated for President in 2008 at the age of seventy-two. But though both came to the attention of the political establishment because of their unique personal traits, both have also been subject to pressures to become more politically orthodox in accordance with each party’s standards since their party’s nominations. In Obama’s case, he has been swayed to be more politically moderate, more hawkish on his stands concerning foreign relations, and appear more middle-class in his social mores. In John McCain’s case, he has had to appease the Republican base by stepping up his support for more tax cuts, talk more openly about his Christian faith, and announce his opposition to abortion. And concerning abortion, McCain came back to the Republican fold by choosing Sarah Palin to be his Vice President – a politician backed solidly by the pro-life coalition.
Now I can’t decide which of the two conventions I looked less forward to seeing between the Democratic one held in Denver and the Republican one held in St. Paul. I anticipated I would hear about an equal amount of dishonesty from each one and I probably wasn’t wrong. The Democrats are all for “change,” are wealthy friends of the poor, are for peace while still promising a strong and posturing military, and promise tax hikes only for the rich that can afford to pay them. The Republicans are more “moral,” endorse family values, are more sober and clear thinking when it comes to economic matters, speak more in line with the desires of the silent majority and middle class, and find more solace in saluting the American flag. In neither convention should we in any way have anticipated that we will hear one concrete solution to any problem that concerns American citizens.
The first day of the Republican Convention was influenced by the “Gustav” angle. John McCain postponed most official business during the first day because he felt it was not appropriate for Republicans to be celebrating a convention while many American citizens were in danger because of the approach of Hurricane Gustav along the Gulf Coast (especially with Hurricane Katrina still in the mind of many that had to deal with the aftermath of that storm). Actually, the weather gave the Republicans a convenient excuse to not have President George W. Bush and Vice President Dick Cheney present at the convention. Instead, the two had more “important business” to attend to in the Gulf states while leaving Laura Bush (wife of the current President) and Cindy McCain in St. Paul to give speeches about helping out those individuals in need along the Gulf Coast states. The McCain camp frankly does not want to be closely associated with the Bush administration by anyone outside of the Republican Party because of the President’s low approval ratings. Thus, the first day of the convention came and went without anyone at the convention uttering a line that could be considered political.
George W. Bush did get his chance to speak on the second day of the convention, but he did it by teleprompter and was introduced to the delegates of the convention by his wife. George Bush’s speech was mercifully short where he talked briefly about the need for charitable and volunteer work in helping out the victims of storms like Hurricane Gustav, and then went on to give a short summary of why John McCain was a great American. Then we had Fred Thompson. He got the crowd riled up in his folksy way. Especially, he defended Sarah Palin for her strength in being a “Washington outsider” (you’re going to hear that phrase a number of times during this campaign), and for her ability to field dress a moose. Thompson next transitioned into the topic of John McCain. Thompson gave a summary of McCain’s imprisonment in Viet Nam. And no question, it is a remarkable story. Then we have Thompson telling us that McCain brought the same courage he had shown in the “Hanoi Hilton” to Washington, D.C. We have Thompson telling us that McCain will never compromise and that he will hold to his conservative principles. Thompson’s speech indeed connected with the delegates and Republican base. Probably, it won’t have great effect for anybody else beyond that.
Joe Lieberman, a Democrat, also spoke during the second day of the convention. Known mostly as a liberal that has departed from his party on foreign affairs (in particular, the Iraqi war), Lieberman is indeed an enigma. “Country matters more than party!” Lieberman exclaimed to explain his reasons for why he was speaking at the Republican convention, and he added that his friend, John McCain, was the best friend of the United States. More sedate than Thompson’s speech, Lieberman’s speech was still more effective than Thompson’s in that it created a greater appearance of independence for those that supported McCain. Lieberman appealed to those that are looking for a less partisan candidate for the Presidency. Yet he basically said the same thing that we’ve heard from so many Republican speakers before at almost every convention: his candidate (in this case, McCain) was more patriotic than the candidate the Democrats were putting up. And in saying this, Lieberman was unwittingly making McCain out to be much less of a maverick than we all along have been led to believe. Because in the mind of most convention members, “patriotism” denotes agreeing with those in attendance.
Wednesday, the third day of the convention, will be most notable for the introduction of Sarah Palin. Whatever “vetting” process she went through (a newly discovered and now overused term by journalists - like the phrase “hanging chad” was overused during the election of 2000), the American public did not know much about her - other than she has a seventeen year old daughter that is now pregnant. But before we heard from her we first got to listen to some Presidential wannabes such as Mitt Romney and Mike Huckabee. Romney stressed that “liberal” is still a dirty word. Huckabee stressed how John McCain would not change the age-old definition of marriage (the definition that somehow originated in Christian doctrine) or redefine when life begins. Both Romney and Huckabee might be setting themselves up for a possible Presidential bid in 2012.
Former New York Mayor Rudy Giuliani speech immediately preceded that of Palin’s. Giuliani as it turns out was one of the more impressive speakers because he shows a sense of humor, a bit of charm and seems like an affable fellow. Like so many other speakers during this convention, Giuliani pointed out the enormous sacrifices that McCain had made in serving his country. He then compared the credentials of McCain to Obama (obviously slanting McCain’s experience to appear more impressive). “John McCain has been tested, Barack Obama has not,” Giuliani said. “Change is not a destination just as hope is not a strategy.” Giuliani in his speech listed a number of things that John McCain will accomplish if elected, and his promises sounded remarkably similar to what the Democrats had promised would occur if Obama was elected the prior week in Denver. Cut taxes, make American energy independent and respected throughout the world, etc. Then there came Giuliani's long and sort of eloquent defense of the executive experience of Sarah Palin.
There was very long applause (almost as long as Giuliani’s 30 minute speech) when Sarah Palin walked out onto the stage. And she proceeded to get the audience on their feet several minutes at a time by basically saying nothing and acting tough. Yes, we heard that being Mayor in a small town in Alaska amounted to more executive experience than Barack Obama has ever had. We heard about her family and life as a hockey mom and how she was “ordinary folk.” (We will hear that particular phrase used so many times prior to the November election that we will become sick of it.) At some point during her speech, Palin’s five-month old daughter that for some reason the family felt needed to be present at the activities was passed around to family members and finally to Cindy McCain like the child was a basketball while the cameras had to zoom in on the adorable infant.
Palin did spend a few moments speaking about her political leanings. She told how she was fiscally conservative and cut the budget while an Alaskan’ Governor. She told how she knew where the oil existed that could make us independent of all foreign interests. There was also a bit of jingoism and patriotic fervor when she told how John McCain would make the nation more secure. But other than the Republican standard lines, admittedly delivered with poise and confidence, we heard nothing to give us a foreboding of her political ideology. Just more of the same. In the mind of much of the public, it was a successful speech because she made no gaffs. She came across as strong yet feminine, and she lacked the abrasiveness that’s so often associated with Hillary Clinton by Clinton’ detractors. At the end of the speech, McCain then joined her on the stage so that the two could apparently spontaneously hug each other – something never before done by running mates.
On the final night of the convention, I missed the speech given by Tom Ridge but I did hear the one given by Cindy McCain. Like all good spouses, she spoke highly of her husband and of family and of motherhood. Of course, we shouldn’t have expected anything more. Whatever problems she may have had with her husband in their almost thirty years of marriage and whatever infidelities she may have had to endure she never mentioned. Probably, it doesn’t matter. They’re still married after almost thirty years and seven children later.
Finally, John McCain came out on stage after a short film tribute to him was shown on the screen. A special platform was built for him so that he could walk out among the audience and appear surrounded by his admirers. He could be the oldest individual ever elected to the office of President and he looks good, especially for someone that spent so much time in a prison camp while undergoing torture. Yet much of his speech was not so much spent talking about what he would do for us but rather thanking all the individuals that had helped him along the way. Though making us know that there are differences between the two of them, McCain even went so far to pay his respect for his opponent, Barack Obama. When it came to his “specifics,” he came out with about as many generalities as Barack Obama did in Denver. According to McCain, there will be no pork barrel spending that he won’t veto. America, he maintained, will be more secure. He and his running mate will shake up the bureaucracy in Washington, D.C. Judges, he said, will no longer legislate from the bench (a good old Republican lament – however far it may really be from being a true concern for America). He reminds us again and again about the success of the “surge” in Iraq that he claimed such an important role in bringing about. (The success of the surge is, of course, still debatable.) The party of Lincoln, Roosevelt (Teddy that is) and Reagan, so he claimed, will get back to “basics.” Health care will remain privatized, tax cuts will be the law of the day along with the reduction of failed programs that will make the tax cuts possible, and a global market that stimulates the economy will open up more jobs for American workers at the same time. Competition must be reintroduced to education to give the parents more choice. And, of course, we will become more energy independent by drilling those oil wells right now, build nuclear power plants and produce “cleaner” coal (whatever that may be). It all sounded easy and only slightly partisan. And McCain’s reputation was secure enough that he didn’t have to shout out his message too much. There was some reaching out, however, to the other side. He reminded us that we were all Americans. This included the immigrants from Mexico (possibly the one thing he said in his speech that made the conservative base most uncomfortable). Finally, when it comes to foreign relations, McCain likes to talk tough and he didn’t disappoint us here. He will negotiate with our friends but not necessarily our enemies, he says, as we can’t turn a “blind eye” to evil. This included the evil of Iran and Russian aggression. He maintained that he understands the world. He will help our friends and stand up to our enemies. After all of this, he will bring an enduring peace.
In the end, he blames all problems on the “business as usual” in Washington. McCain claims changes need to be made, and these all need to be made in our nation’s capitol. He sort of ignores the shortcomings of his own party in saying all of this, however. The Republican Party has controlled the White House all but eight years since 1980. The Republican Party has controlled Congress all but two years since 1994. There was even a short period during the Bush administration where the Republicans controlled both houses. And John McCain, himself, has been in Congress or the Senate since 1983. But in any case, so he says, he will welcome the Democrats that reach out to help, and his governing hand will be transparent. He claims he has the scars, unlike his opponent, to prove that he can do his job.
McCain then told his story about his imprisonment in Viet Nam and how he turned down the many opportunities he had to come home before others that had been there longer than he. I can’t belittle this part of his story, though many will debate how much relevancy this should be given concerning his ability to perform the duties as President. McCain went through an ordeal that maybe none of us can ever comprehend. Does it make him more qualified than Obama to be President? I don’t know. How can we ever know? Obama likely had his own struggles to go through, not as dramatic of course but maybe every bit as telling in allowing him to be a leader. Still, it’s hard to deny that this part of McCain’s story gives some indication of the man. And McCain’s retelling of his imprisonment then allowed him to finish off his speech with a flourish and allowed to him to reclaim how his party could once again make history.
McCain’s speech was to me probably the most impressive one given at either convention. Yet the reaction and almost pious rejoicing of the Republican faithful makes it almost impossible for me to give the Republicans a free ride. The Republicans do not hold a monopoly on patriotism, morality or religious faith. Many in the Republican Party want to sincerely instill their values upon the nation, but these same individuals often do not acknowledge that values exist for others that may differ from their own. McCain has fought against the party establishment in past years and this makes him an interesting choice, but it was that very independence that almost cost him the nomination here and has now caused him to emphasize some Republican positions that he has not always been very supportive of such as tax breaks and a pro-life posture. I still question whether McCain can be truly independent of the Republican status quo.
Outside of the surprise pick of Sarah Palin for Vice President by McCain, there was really nothing surprising to come out of either of the back-to-back conventions. The celebration in Denver was for those loyal to the Democratic’ Party, and the one in St. Paul for those loyal to the Republican’ Party. This was all set up to be the youthful vigor of one politician versus the wisdom and experience of another. McCain’s choice of Palin, however, took much of the thunder out of the Democratic convention. In any case, the celebration and enthusiasm on either side was all over-the-top. How can anyone get so excited about a politician that may in the end disappoint us? We don’t know if either one of these men are truly qualified for the office because there really is no way to know what the next four to eight years will even bring. And to be so willing to put so much power in the hands of one politician without reservation and with so much blind faith amounts to hero worship at its worst. I think both nominees are decent and knowledgeable men with powerful personal stories. Either candidate is more impressive than many of the party selections we have had for quite a number of recent elections. The Vice Presidential selections, on the other hand, felt more like politically motivated choices than inspired choices.
Still, I’m hopeful. I’m hopeful that rather than having politicians that tell us how to behave, we will have a couple of decent examples of men that might inspire us to think for ourselves. For we have to stop being followers of politicians and expecting someone else to tell us their version of how we should live our lives. We have the greatest political process in the world because it is one that most allows the citizens to participate within it. Yet the process becomes flawed when so many individuals want to lead or follow rather than chart their own course. Again, as I said in my companion piece about the Democratic National Convention in Denver, I am not endorsing any candidate for President. I’ve tried my best here just to give my observations of what I have seen at the two conventions. Anyone else’s observations may be just as relevant so long as they’ve put thought into their choice. I just hope people are not too comfortable in the choice that they will ultimately make.
September 6, 2008