09 September 2008

The Maverick, vindicated

Sen. McCain gave a good -- not great -- acceptance speech last Thursday in St. Paul. He spent a noticeable portion of it blasting Republicans for failing the American people since they returned to power. He wisely held off on POW references until the end, using a powerful anecdote to illustrate his transformation from a brash, egocentric fighter pilot to a man who's dedicated his adult life to serving his country. It was an extraordinarily powerful story from a guy who often looks uncomfortable with a teleprompter.

Keith Olbermann -- perhaps scorningly, but a broken clock is always right twice a day -- opined that the convention crowd was noticeably unenthusiastic about McCain's record of reaching across the aisle, and of his criticism of the GOP generally. I think he's right. McCain knows he has those people in his pocket. Unlike Sen. Obama, McCain wisely focused on those undecided voters during his acceptance speech. He didn't treat his acceptance speech as an opportunity to outline his policy views, but rather as a chance to speak directly to those outside the convention hall about his considerable record of reaching across the aisle.

As someone who has criticized the Bush administration for taking the GOP over a cliff, this Republican ticket is a breath of fresh air.

The significance of the moment during McCain's acceptance speech wasn't lost on me. In 2000, the Senior Senator was public enemy number one to many of those who cheered him last week from the convention floor. George W. Bush's well-funded, heavily staffed and highly organized team buried him amid a sea of negative ads throughout the primary, including disgusting innuendo in South Carolina, and the two campaigns famously clashed as if they were on opposite sides of the aisle.

Conservatives rallied around the self-styled "compassionate conservative" from Texas, and the likes of Limbaugh and Hannity railed against McCain's penchant for reaching across the aisle and working with Democrats. To the base, McCain wasn't sufficiently "conservative." They mocked McCain's friendliness with the press and the admiration he received from the likes of Chris Matthews.

By all accounts, McCain took the defeat -- and the attacks -- personally, and broke with Republican leadership on myriad issues during the first Bush term. Former Senate Majority Leader Tom Daschle has spoken about discussions between McCain and leading Democrats during 2001 and 2002 concerning the possibility of McCain switching parties, and while he minimizes its significance, McCain considered running as John Kerry's vice president in 2004 for a time. The frosty relationship between McCain and Bush has never thawed, and during his 40-minute speech last week, McCain didn't even mention the president by name.

Eight years on, the party has changed immeasurably.

Bush's promise to be "a uniter, not a divider" has turned out to be a farce. The president has been wholly unwilling to reach across the aisle on any considerable issue, leaving the problems of Social Security reform, health care, immigration and America's dependence on foreign oil to the next president. Admirable, isn't it? To be sure, rampant partisanship on the other side of the aisle has equally poisoned the political climate. But the Bush administration has been politically toxic for the Republican Party, and as a result, the GOP looks poised for a crushing defeat in November.

Aside from preventing another 9/11 -- and to be sure, this is something that should not be minimized -- the Bush administration has given the nation eight years of swollen deficits, higher spending, expanded government, a Republican Party that hangs its hat on small-bore social issues, a devalued dollar, an economy in the tank, bickering partisanship and yes, the same unsolved problems that Bush promised to fix eight years ago.

All the while, McCain remained a steadfast warrior for the supremely successful surge strategy in Iraq, railed against out-of-control earmarks and spending and broke ranks with the GOP when he believed it necessary. As his formal rival in the White House became less popular, more people looked to the maverick senator from Arizona as the party's last chance to save itself.

Through a stunning sequence of events during the Republican primary -- his campaign going effectively bankrupt and retooling last fall, McCain appearing at more than 100 town hall meetings in New Hampshire, Guiliani inexplicably ignoring the first five primaries, Huckabee upsetting Romney in Iowa, Thompson staying in the race in South Carolina (siphoning votes from Huckabee and allowing McCain to win a narrow yet momentum-swinging victory), and the unlikely endorsement of Florida Gov. Charlie Crist -- he became the party's unlikely standard-bearer.

Is the GOP rank-and-file finally realizing that the bastardization of conservatism peddled by Bush and Karl Rove is a surefire way to destroy one's political party? Or has the base -- and yes, the likes of Limbaugh, Hannity, Dobson and, somewhat unbelievably, Rove -- simply rallied around McCain because he's the last man standing between the country and an Obama presidency? The latter is probably more accurate.

Either way, one thing's for sure.

The maverick is all they have left.

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