The undercard of Thursday's closing act was so unremarkable I will waste no time dwelling on the performances of Tom Ridge, Lindsey Graham, and Cindy McCain. John McCain, the newly minted Republican nominee, would give the only performance that would matter.
As an orator, McCain is no match for Obama, or Sarah Palin for that matter, and tonight was no exception. It was standard McCain, style-wise--stiff, awkward, and struggling with the teleprompter, he worked his way through the speech. He struggled with his cadence throughout and at times it seemed even the speaker himself wasn't really interested in what was being said. The crowd was noticeably less enthusiastic than the night before, though it was clear he was not speaking to them (I'll touch on that in a moment). Even the much-maligned green screen even made a brief cameo (it apparently turns out that was a ridiculous campaign mistake). Of course, we knew McCain would not be able to match Obama stylistically, so what about the content?
McCain made a sharp break from the vicious attacks of the previous night, honoring Senator Obama's achievements and denouncing the "partisan rancor." Indeed, the speech was largely void of the partisan attacks we've seen all too often of late. He sought to rise above it all, casting himself as the agent of change in an effort to appeal to the independents his campaign desperately needs to win. McCain would describe himself as a maverick public servant, saying, "I've been called a maverick--someone who marches to the beat of his own drum. Sometimes it's meant as a compliment and sometimes it's not. What it really means is I understand who I work for. I don't work for a party. I don't work for a special interest. I don't work for myself. I work for you." The Arizona senator went on to talk about his fight for change in Washington, using some variation of "fight" well over a dozen times in a matter of minutes.
The change McCain would offer, however, proved to be very different from the message we heard out of Denver last week. He delivered meager admonishment of President Bush, only hinting at the need to reform his own party. In many ways, he was offering a return to Reagan conservatism. "We're going to recover the people's trust by standing up again for the values Americans admire," McCain told the crowd. "The party of Lincoln, Roosevelt, and Reagan is going to get back to basics."
The policy specifics would illustrate little change from the last eight years, providing mostly retread Republican ideas. He would eventually offer some red meat to the conservative crowd, touching on abortion, the courts, and education reform. On the economy, his efforts to reach out to anxious voters fell flat. McCain offered the same tax and spend argument that Republicans have for years and it just doesn't seem like that will be enough this time around. He barely tried to allay concerns about health care and even on the energy issue--one of the few areas where Republicans may have an advantage this cycle--he offered little beyond "drill, baby, drill." This speech could have been given by just about any Republican nominee over the past few decades. While the same could essentially have been said about Obama's address last week, the political landscape clearly prefers the generic Democrat to the generic Republican.
McCain was able to bring his speech to a rousing and emotional climax, turning again to his heroic biography. This time, however, he was able to explain how his experience had changed him. "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." It was powerful and moving, concluding with a call to join in the fight.
It wasn't the speech of a lifetime, but it probably did accomplish what McCain had hoped. Ultimately, his campaign wants this election to be about the character and experience of the two men seeking the the highest office in land. From that perspective, it didn't matter that McCain's concept of change was essentially more of the same. McCain was offering a new face for the Republican Party and the conservative movement, based not on policy, but on his own remarkable character.
Will voters buy into McCain's choice? I'm not sure. I thought the speech was too much about the past and not enough about the future. This election is about more than just character. It's about vision and McCain didn't offer that last night.
Cross-posted at Political Realm.