Elephant Walk: John McCain’s Declaration of “Independence”

Dw.: Well, John McCain is in a pickle now, isn’t he? Last week he chose a running mate that would satisfy certain weak sectors of his ticket – the Christian Right, young people and women. One day after Sarah Palin’s speech, she is suddenly the party’s superstar. It helps him in the polls, but now he has two people to wrestle the spotlight from: Barack Obama and his own VP choice.

Jon: I think McCain needs to back away from the nastiness of Wednesday evening. Mitt, Rudy and Sarah were so over the top, and the crowd in the hall was so angry, that the long-term impact might be an implosion of the Republican Party brought on by its own misplaced victimhood and unearned condescension. McCain needs to offer something different tonight.

Ted: This speech will tell us a lot about how much McCain wants to be president, and how low he will stoop to get it. So far, he has kowtowed to his advisors and party regulars, who steered him away from picking his top choices for VP (Thompson and Lieberman) in order to go with Palin.

Dw.: Tonight’s speech has to be a winner. By even the standards of the conservative pundits, Obama’s was one for the ages. McCain needs to bring the impact, and badly. The question is how he’ll approach the task. Will he rise above the verbal flogging his compatriots inflicted over the last two and a half days, addressing the audience as a statesman? Or will he sink to a barrage of easy cliches, distortions, and the kibbles and bits the red states lap up so willingly?

Ready, steady, go…!

McCain takes the stage…

Dw: Heeeeere’s Johnny!

Jon: What was with that intro video? Very Leni Riefenstahl, with the voiceover and the flagwaving. And now McCain enters, and that huge spotlight is terribly Triumph of the Will.

Dw: I’m crying ’cause it’s … Wait! Did you see that?

A man in the balcony is holding up a sign that reads “You can’t win an occupation” on one side, and “McCain votes against vets” on the other.

Ted: Nice! That’s democracy … in the “Free Speech Box”!

Jon: How did that guy even get in the hall, in this day and age?

McCain offers praise for Obama and the Democrats…

Ted: What’s with all this unity crap? We want Obama’s head on a pike! C’mon, kick Obama’s ass. Don’t respect him…

Jon: This is BS. If he really respected his opponents, he’d have reined in Rabid Rudy last night.

Dw: Side by side on my piano, keyboard, oh Lord … Whoa! What’s going on?

Another protester is escorted out of the building, and McCain starts to lose his focus as the crowd is more interested in the protester than what he has to say.

Ted: Now I’m starting to feel sorry for McCain.

McCain introduces Sarah Palin, generating his first standing ovation…

Ted: God, that must be tough. He’s gotta say “Sarah Palin” to get the crowd to their feet.

Dw: This speech is so dry. No eloquence. No passion. Just cue cards and … crap: The “M” word.

Ted: Maverick = “I work for YOU.” I guess with that logic, every working man is a Maverick … to his boss.

McCain offers a litany of suffering in the economy Republicans created…

Jon: This is extraordinary. He brings up all these people who are having troubles and insists he sympathizes with them, yet he offers not one policy prescription to address their situations. It’s like Bush 41 reading from the index card in ’92: “Message: I care.”

Dw: Hush! One of his suffering guys works on the docks. Whoa-oh, Livin’ on a Prayer!

Ted: The crowd is getting a bit bored. Can’t he just read Palin’s speech from last night?

Jon: He could, but it wouldn’t have that moose-huntin’-hockey-mom pizazz.

McCain: “We lost the trust of the American people when some Republicans gave in to the temptations of corruption.”

Ted: God, is this guy out of step with the Republican base, or what? They’re clapping, but they really don’t believe it.

McCain suggests going “Back to Basics”: Lower taxes, an end to wasteful spending, open markets, a culture of life…

Jon: The usual conservative stuff. Sounds a lot like the last eight years.

Ted: He says he wants to help workers whose jobs have left new ones that “don’t go away.” What the hell is he talking about? What kind of job doesn’t go away? Busboy? Checker at Target?

Dw: Pot dealer.

Ted: I thought dealing meth was more lucrative …

Dw: Yeah, but meth makes you ugly …

Ted: And it makes you shit your pants.

Jon: Well, there’s Depends for that. You can probably get some from McCain.

Ted: Oh boy, here comes school choice — and who knows, maybe a new knowledge center called McUniversity where you can get the “Dollar degree.”

Jon: Did he really just say, in reference to school choice, that “education is the civil rights issue of this century”? Wow, we’re way beyond “white victimhood” now. Just like the Republicans have tried to co-opt feminism this week, now he’s trying to co-opt civil rights for the crazy-Christians who want to opt out of the public-school system! And he’s doing it right after the Democrats nominated the first African-American candidate for the presidency! Obama gave his acceptance speech on the anniversary of “I have a dream,” and now McCain has a dream that kids won’t be judged by the color of their skin, but by the crucifix on their school binder purchased with taxpayer dollars.

McCain: “Let’s remove barriers to qualified instructors, attract and reward good teachers, and help bad teachers find another line of work.”

Dw: You know what makes for a bad teacher? Usually, it’s a bad paycheck.

McCain: “We will drill new wells off-shore, and we’ll drill them now. We’ll drill them now!

Dw: Drill, baby, drill!

Ted: “I’m going home, where Cindy and I are going to practice drilling!”

Dw: I think I just threw up a little. It’s like picturing turtles humping.

Ted: Uh-oh … He’s getting ready for his home-run moment … Terrorists! Iran! Russia! Angry brown people and former commies are going to get yo mama!

Dw: A vote for Obama is a purchase order for pain, Donny! This has been tonight’s Big Lebowski moment.

Ted: Shut the fuck up, Donny!

Dw: Gosh, John McCain loves America. “Long ago, something unusual happened to me that taught me the most valuable lesson of my life” … I was abducted by space people.

Ted: Here we go … I should be elected president because, well, I served in Vietnam. And I was tortured.

Dw: They put me on the catwalk, on the catwalk …

Jon: I’m too sexy for my cell, too sexy for my cell, so sexy in hell … and the Songbird keeps singing.

Dw.: By this time in Obama’s speech, we had a laundry list of things he was going to do for America. McCain’s still going on about what Vietnam did to him. “I love America” … like a fat boy loves cake.

Ted: Or a frat boy loves date rape.

Dw: Or Curveball loves yellow cake.

Ted: Or Bristol loves … wait, we’re not supposed to go there.

McCain: “If you find fault with our country, make it a better one. Enlist in our armed forces. Become a teacher. Join the ministry. Run for public office. Feed a hungry child. Teach an illiterate adult to read. Comfort the afflicted. Defend the rights of the oppressed.”

Ted: Wasn’t this list at the end of An Inconvenient Truth?

Dw: “Nothing brings greater happiness in life than to serve a cause greater than yourself.” A cause greater than yourself = talking about yourself for 45 minutes.

McCain’s got his mojo working now, for the big finish: “Stand up! Stand up! Stand up and fight!” And the crowd goes wild…

Ted: Is there an “Applause” light going off right now? Because this seems a little forced. Wow! That was wonderfully unimpressive.

Dw: Remember: even though I am a Democratic supporter, I praised Palin’s speech last night … This speech SUCKED.

Jon: I gotta say, I disagree with both of you, at least a little. This was an appropriate speech to end this convention, which was all about establishing McCain’s biography, his commitment to “service” and his maverick schtick as the solutions to our country’s problems. Never mind the policies, never mind whether you’re a Democrat or Republican — McCain’s a hero, so vote for him. That’s his message … his only message, pretty much … and he delivered it with aplomb. I’m not saying it’s a winning message — it sure didn’t work for Bob Dole or John Kerry — but it’s the one he chose.

Ted: This was the anti-Palin speech. Too much unity, too much stuff about not attacking one another … you know, everything Republicans don’t like.

Dw: He kept stepping on Bush’s base.

Jon: Actually, this complemented Palin’s speech nicely. She offered herself up as Bride of the Maverick to the rabid rodents in the room last night, a combination of reformer and attack dog. Tonight, McCain toned it down in order to talk past the folks in the hall and out to the folks watching on the telly. Like Palin, though, he backed up the maverick stuff with practically no policy prescriptions to get us out of the mess their party created.

Ted: Chris Matthews is saying he’s never heard an acceptance speech include such a clear confession of failure, and that this is clearly a divorce from the Bush Administration. Oh, and he’s also saying that McCain will lead in the polls next week.

Dw: I wouldn’t doubt it, because every time my spidey-sense says the public won’t buy into something, they flock to it.

I thought McCain needed to really put forth an agenda, and maybe even break up the clouds of the past eight years of Republican control. He tried, mightily, to distance himself from that administration, yet in many subversive ways he was also cleaving to it. He consistently, and rather gracelessly, made the case for continued war. He recounted his tortured Vietnam experience, and tried to equate that with having the experience to run a country. He kept insisting that he’d bring change, yet his definition had the vague stink of sameness.

I speak as someone who had already made his mind up, so yes, bias persists. Nonetheless, I wanted to come away from this speech thinking McCain could, if elected, guide us into a better future. Unfortunately, John McCain’s future looks and awful lot like four years ago, when freedom fries were still on the menu, tensions were still inexorably linked to the color-coded threat gauge, and the last thing we would ever do is allow someone into the White House who, God forbid, came off as an intellectual.

What does it say about America that we could still be courting these things after the last eight years? John McCain is a war hero and a brave man, and that should never be discounted, but the man he was and the man he is are very different. When you vote, ask yourself. Which McCain am I actually voting for?

Ted: McCain did make a bold move in tonight’s speech: He admitted his party made mistakes. He really wasn’t talking to those seated in the audience. Rather, he was talking to moderates and independents who he hopes will see him as the maverick he says he is. Palin, on the other hand, was clearly talking to Republicans at the convention and demonstrating that she’s every bit of the Christian conservative she says she is.

The “Back to Basics” approach was a brilliant move to reassure the active part of the Republican base that he’s not straying from the house that Reagan built. Rather, like Reagan said about the Democratic Party (“I didn’t leave the Democratic Party, it left me”), McCain is telling his fellow Republicans that this is their chance to redeem themselves for the mistakes they made, and come home to the Big Tent — a tent that he hopes to fill with independents and Reagan Democrats. But time will tell if this kinda-sorta center-right ticket will win the hearts and minds of American voters.

Jon: So there we have it, folks: Two weeks of partisan attacks combined with appeals based on biography (both parties) and actual ideas (only one, really). And I would bet McCain’s ranch that, after the bounce from this GOP convention settles into an accurate picture of the electorate’s actual sympathies, the race will be right back where it was two weeks ago: essentially tied. (Don’t worry, if I’m wrong McCain will still have at least six homes left.)

So we start anew, with two months, four debates and hundreds of millions of dollars to be spent on campaigns featuring endless attack ads and mutual disrespect. That doesn’t cleave too closely to McCain’s rhetoric tonight, but that’s America for you. It will be interesting to see how this rhetoric of reform, bipartisanship … and condescension … will translate into the debate format for McCain and Palin. So far, that’s all the Republicans have offered, in liew of actual policy proposals.

Unless they come up with some solutions for the current economic mess lickety-split, I still believe that a tie right now will go to the challengers in November, whether it’s by 2 points or 10. McCain’s hagiography and Wednesday’s pit-bull-with-lipstick nastiness didn’t change the fact that this is an atrocious Republican year. But then again, I proudly cast my first-ever ballot in a national race for Walter Mondale in 1984, so what the hell do I know?