McCain and the eating of spinach

I’d bet that a fair number of Republican delegates left the convention hall last night thinking how it would be a fine idea to reverse the GOP ticket and have John McCain play second fiddle to Sarah Palin.

After all, she’s the one who plucked the conservative chords and quickened the pulses of the party's true-believers. (Actually, she did skip a few chords. She wasn’t about to display her anti-abortion extremism on national television, or her support for creationism, lest she alienate any of the persuadable Hillary women.) She’s the one who preached the ideological faith, and energized the base, and gave the faithful a temporary opportunity to forget the serial failures of Republican rule these past eight years.

By contrast, McCain served up virtually no red meat at all. His mission last night – until he reached the POW section of the speech – was basically to force the delegates to eat their spinach.

Because the speech was aimed primarily at independent swing voters, McCain spent much of his time vowing to clean up the mess that the dominant Republicans had created. And the Republican partisans in the hall, primed to support their nominee, were essentially compelled to cheer the promised cleanup of their own party’s screw ups.

The conservative foot soldiers had to feel a tad confused. McCain at one point vowed to stop "the constant partisan rancor," but the thing is, the foot soldiers love partisan rancor. Previous speakers - Palin, Huckabee, Giuliani, Romney - had reveled in partisan rancor, stoking the GOP base's resentment of "elites," and the howls in the hall sounded downright primal. Yet here was McCain seeking applause for the very opposite...which is quite odd anyway, given the fact that his own campaign is run by Karl Rove acolytes who have been schooled in the benefits of partisan rancor.

Nevertheless, for John McCain, going after his own party is really the sole route to the independents, and hence the sole road to victory. He has no other choice, because if the Democrats can tag him as the status quo candidate, as the guy offering a third Bush term, he is toast in November.

Therefore, his subliminal message to the conservative base last night was this: "I gave you Palin, and I let you write a right-wing party platform that would freak out the swing voters if they ever bothered to read it. So now you've gotta hold up your end of the deal. I'm gonna court those voters, and I need you to let me do it. If you want us to win this thing, fall in line like good soldiers."

Still, his mission last night bordered at times on the surreal. With nary a single utterance of the word “Bush,” McCain pledged to “make this government start working for you again, and get this country back on the road to prosperity and peace,” which is just the kind of thing that an “out” party nominee would normally say about an incumbent opposition that fomented war and recession. But McCain was aiming his darts at his own side, which perhaps explains why the delegate applause seemed a tad strained; after all, these conservatives, many of whom are still Bush loyalists, were being forced to acknowledge that their hero - and the Republican lawmakers who aided and abetted him - had bungled the job on an epic scale.

At another point, McCain vowed to bring change to “the old, big spending, do nothing” Washington crowd - thereby inviting his listeners to remember that it was the Republican Congress, in cahoots with the Republican president, that blew apart the Clinton surplus, ran up record deficits, and went on the biggest federal spending binge since Lyndon Johnson’s Great Society. The faithful in the hall cheered anyway, either because they were acknowledging their leaders’ failures, or perhaps because they simply chose not to remember at all.

And they cheered wildly when McCain vowed that, as president, he would expose any congressional lawmaker who tried to sneak a pork-barrel earmark onto his desk for signature (“I’ll make them famous, you will know their names, you will know their names!”) – another moment saturated with irony, given the fact that the earmark epidemic blossomed under Republican rule, with Bush vetoing precisely nothing while his party reigned on Capitol Hill.

Perhaps the GOP partisans are truly and sincerely determined to make amends; they cheered McCain when he declared that “the party of Lincoln, (Teddy) Roosevelt, and Reagan is going to get back to basics.” But it was noteworthy that McCain, while touting his so-called maverick tendencies, took care not to antagonize the party base by boasting about his occasional deviations from conservative ideological orthodoxy.

He drew a little applause when he described himself as “someone who marches to the beat of his own drum.” He drew a little applause when he insisted that “I don’t work for a party.” He even drew a little applause when he said that “I’ve worked with members of both parties to fix problems that need to be fixed.” But he was not about to recite a litany of his greatest hits – such as the time he worked with a liberal Democratic senator, Russ Feingold, to pass campaign finance reform (a law loathed by conservative groups, because it curbed their spending); and the time he worked with another liberal Democrat, Ted Kennedy, to produce a path-to-citizenship immigration reform bill. That bill alone sparked an outpouring of conservative anger, and nearly sunk his candidacy a year ago.

Indeed, it was telling last night that McCain didn’t utter a single word about the immigration issue. There’s considerable support, among swing-voting independents, for a path-to-citizenship reform measure, but McCain didn’t dare make that pitch last night, lest he rile the conservatives all over again.

McCain had to tend to other business as well. He tried to show that he empathized with economically struggling Americans (“these are tough times for many of you”), although the solutions he offered were mostly the standard party prescriptions (tax cuts, open markets, reduced government spending). Later, he was arguably most effective while playing his strongest card, detailing the POW experience as a window on his character, and there was one particularly lovely line, courtesy of speechwriter Mark Salter: “I fell in love with my country when I was a prisoner in someone else’s.”

But the big task was to cut and run from the last eight years, to dodge the status quo label and position himself as a “change” candidate, even if it means running against his own party and urging all party partisans to do the same. And despite his occasional  rhetorical excesses last night (“we need to change the way government does almost everything”), McCain is arguably the only Republican candidate who is capable of dumping the Bush baggage and getting himself elected in this politically inhospitable year.

The party faithful, long discomfited by McCain, essentially lucked out when he locked up the nomination. Perhaps one ingredient in their applause last night was simple relief that he was the last man standing.