The McCain Paradox

John McCain delivered an honorable but paradoxical acceptance speech. He made a heartfelt appeal for an end to rancor and had gracious words for Barack Obama. He pledged to reach out his hand to any willing patriot and to include independents and Democrats in his administration. On the other hand, he had allowed his campaign to choreograph a convention that was filled with highly charged personal attacks against the Democratic nominee, and his vice presidential selection seemed calculated to mobilize rather than to expand his party.

The paradox extended to substance as well. McCain spoke eloquently about the need to retool policies and institutions created before the end of the Cold War and the rise of the global economy. But the substantive proposals he listed were less than forward-looking. His economic agenda was the familiar mantra of smaller government, less spending, lower taxes and open markets. His education agenda focused on school choice, which George W. Bush set aside in 2001 to forge a bipartisan agreement on the No Child Left Behind Act. This apparently minor detail symbolizes a larger problem: there was little in McCain’s agenda to create a foundation for the bipartisanship he seeks. It is not easy to see how he would deal effectively with what is certain to be a Democratic Congress, or how he would break the gridlock he deplores. It is likely, rather, that he would have to redeem his pledge to use his veto pen, over and over again.

Still, McCain did manage to underscore themes that he will likely promote relentlessly during the fall campaign: he is a maverick who will put country above party, a Republican who will tell his own party that it has lost its way, a patriot who will put service ahead of self-interest. And rather than contrasting his experience to Obama’s shorter track-record, he focused instead on the change he wants to bring to Washington and on his capacity, based on his experience, to bring it about. He argued that whatever we need to do, we can’t get it done as long as government remains ineffective and corrupt—a claim with considerable resonance at a time when public trust in government is nearing its historic low. Above all, McCain understood that, to win this election, he would have to rebut the charge that he was running for “George Bush’s third term,” and he worked hard to give himself and his party a new beginning.

No doubt the most compelling part of McCain’s speech was his detailed account of his captivity in North Vietnam—and of the spiritual changes he had undergone. While heartfelt, this also served a strategic purpose. The McCain campaign understands that its candidate has a better chance of winning a contest over character than over issues. He presented himself as a man tested by adversity and strengthened by long service—in short, a safe choice for uncertain times.

Obama’s challenge, then, is to make enough Americans comfortable with the idea of him as president so that the forces underlying this year’s contest come to the fore. A troubled economy, an unpopular war, an electorate that believe by 4 to1 that America is on the wrong track, an incumbent president with near-record low approval ratings, a large Democratic advantage in party identification, fundraising, and grassroots organizing—these and other factors point to an Obama victory. It is a testament to McCain’s personal appeal—and to the uncertainty Obama has not yet dispelled—that the race remains as close as it is.