Even allowing for the fact that one does not expect soaring oratory from John McCain, his closing speech to the convention was disappointing. He had a hard act to follow after Sarah Palin, but that is no excuse because there was no need to match that for excitement. Instead he had to do two main things, in my view, each of them readily achievable. First and most important, he had to affirm the party’s appeal for votes to the wide middle of the US electorate. Second, he needed to offer some specific domestic policies, and contrast them favourably with the Democratic agenda. He gestured vaguely in both directions, but nothing more.
The speech concentrated mainly on his biography—again. One hesitates to say this because McCain is an authentic hero; his bravery is something that very few of us, least of all this writer, could ever aspire to match; and knowing what inner resources he brings to his candidacy is of course an essential part of his appeal—but how many times does this story need to be told? This week his audience has heard it over and over again. Endless repetition must eventually dull its impact. His heroism and his capacity for sacrifice in the service of his country are unquestioned. By the end of the week, it could have been left at that.
Reaching out to the centre should have been regarded as a priority because of the Palin nomination. For the moment, that looks like a great success: she gave an amazing speech and, to the consternation of the Democrats and a large part of the US media, triumphantly vindicated McCain’s decision to select her. But Palin is a social conservative. Yes, maybe she can bring in centrists as well: that possibility makes her an instant force to be reckoned with in American politics. But right now it is no more than a possibility. She has energised the base—that much is certain—but her views on abortion and other social issues will alarm many centrists who might have been leaning to McCain. Having delighted the base, he needed to rebalance the ticket by moving deftly to the centre himself. Securing the base was necessary but not sufficient: the Republicans cannot win without independents.
Mr McCain, one imagines, would prefer victory to glorious defeat. Yet his centrist gestures were confined mostly to underlining his maverick instincts, his taste for bipartisanship, his willingness to go against party orthodoxy, and his appealingly frank criticisms of what the Republicans had achieved, or failed to, during the Bush years. All that was fine, as far as it went, but much too general. Give us examples. Offer some reassurance that this will not be the right-wing ticket that the Palin nomination suggests it could be. Yes, that would have risked disappointing the hall, but the hall has been very well catered to this week and it was a risk worth taking.
More detail was needed in its own right, too, not just to rebalance the ticket. Once Palin blew the doors off the convention on Wednesday, bringing the torrent of derision over her nomination to an abrupt halt, lack of specific proposals in the Republican platform became the principal line of criticism—and unlike the response to the VP pick, this was a well-aimed attack. In his own superb speech at the end of the Democrats’ convention, Obama took pains to list a series of specific policies. McCain needed to match that or better. He not only failed to do so, but he made the gap all the more obtrusive with the part of his speech that mentioned by name families and individuals that were struggling for one reason or another. McCain said he would honour them and work for them. Good, but how, exactly?
Not for the first time, it occurred to me that McCain’s biggest mistake in this campaign has been in failing to develop a market-friendly proposal for universal health care. Mitt Romney did it in Massachusetts so do not tell me a Republican cannot go there. That plus Palin would have given him a shot at the base and at independents too. It would have cemented his appeal to middle America, which is much preoccupied with the worsening failure of the US health care system. Not to mention, it would have been the right thing to propose on the merits. If he had done this, I think I would be betting on McCain-Palin right now. Ceding the issue to the Democrats, in my view, was a mistake in every way. And I groaned to hear his attack on Obama’s health plan, falling back on the old “socialised medicine” line, which is a travesty.