McCain's Road To Victory

10/06/2008 05:12 am ET | Updated May 25, 2011

The Democratic Party celebration at INVESCO field was only a week ago tonight, but it seems like a season past. It was supposed to be a hard act for the Republicans to follow. Barack Obama was supposed to get a Mile-High bounce from Denver. Bush and Cheney were going to be the awkward relatives at the family party in St. Paul. McCain was between a rock and a hard place in choosing a running mate. The Obama Campaign was capturing the voters' attention with mockery, suggesting that McCain is out of touch with average Americans because he doesn't know how many houses he owns. By contrast, the McCain Campaign had been unable to ignite any excitement among Republicans both in the base and at large. What a difference a week makes.

2008-06-03-otb_onthetrail_v2.jpgLeaving St. Paul, the Republicans see two different roads ahead. First, there is the sober view suggested however inferentially by experienced conservative strategists. In the panel discussion on "Conservatism Today" Monday at the Hubert Humphrey Institute of Public Affairs, Vin Weber, Mickey Edwards and David Frumm seemed to be in agreement that John McCain would lose the presidential race in November; their disagreement was over the geography of loss. Mickey Edwards predicted that Election 2008 would be like 1980, when Americans didn't settle on Reagan over Carter until late in the fall, and then Reagan swept forty-four states. Without coming right out and saying so, Edwards was equating Obama with Reagan. McCain had to take a gamble on Sarah Palin, Edwards posited, because his internal polling has been showing that the race is not as close as the public polls indicate.

David Frumm agreed with Mickey Edwards. "It does look like 1980." Ronald Reagan didn't poll as well as he ran. The inference here was that Obama would repeat that pattern. As I recall, neither man mentioned Obama by name. Vin Weber disagreed on the margins. "He's [Obama] probably going to eke out a 2-3% victory" -- unless something comes up again about the Reverend Wright, then "his [McCain's] chances go way up." There was some doubt among the other panelists whether John McCain would capitalize on anything Wright-related. Vin Weber pushed back. It's all about victory. "People play for keeps."

A few minutes earlier, Mickey Edwards had said, "I think that John McCain can't win this election unless he makes it very clear he's not George Bush." In Sarah Palin, John McCain seems to have found a way, at least for now, to shift the attention of the voters he so crucially needs away from any Bush-McCain connection. Sarah Palin has captured more -- the moment and the national imagination -- much more than John McCain could ever have imagined.

At the Thursday morning Yahoo!/Politico/PioneerPress breakfast, the conversation was supposed to be "Can the GOP Compete in an Era of Rising Diversity," but the talk kept coming back to Sarah Palin. Political commentator Armstrong Williams of XM Radio was particularly ebullient. "I would never have thought a month ago that Obama could lose this election," he said. "It's a new game!" For Williams, Sarah Palin is "the cat's meow." People want to know more now -- not about Barack Obama but about Sarah Palin. "She is the female Bill Clinton when it comes to oratory!"

The other panelists weren't as gaga, but they, too, couldn't keep off Palin. And then there was Karl Rove. Like Edwards, Frumm and Weber, Rove was the voice of cool reason. "When it comes to economic issues, does he [McCain] get it? Does he know what he's going to do?" From his tone, Rove made it clear that McCain has yet to prove himself on the economy. Rove also tried to put a damper on Palin-o-mania. "This election, let's be honest, is going to be about McCain and Obama." And as for Sarah Palin herself, Rove said, "Being the newest player on the stage, she will be the most tested." What happens, he suggested, looking ahead, when she has to deliver an unscripted speech, take questions in a town hall meeting and appear on the Sunday morning talk shows? And if there's an October Surprise, Rove said, it will be in the debates. It will all come down to the debates.

The other road out of St. Paul is the one paved by giddy enthusiasm for Palin and lighted by the indignation of Republican women in the face of perceived attacks against her. In the long restroom line at the Minneapolis Hilton after Thursday's lunch in honor of Cindy McCain, the talk was all Palin. "It makes me so mad! To suggest that because she's a mother of five she can't be a vice president, too!" This outrage, if manufactured in the beginning, has nevertheless now become real. Exclamation was the queue refrain -- but often accompanied by the sort of practical considerations that women are heir to. "I want to know how she managed to pack so fast," one woman asked, "and not just for herself but all those children -- and you know what you get if you leave them to do it!"

At the luncheon, Todd Palin, introducing Cindy McCain to the mostly female audience, showed that he, too, is a fast learner. Mr. Palin is one of those big guys with a high voice. Despite that slight impediment and his need to consult his notes now and again, he adopted just the right tone. "Is it just me, or do things move quick around here," he said. "I might have asked a few more questions when Sarah decided to join the PTA!" It seemed to be a genuine moment -- showing on his face -- when Todd Palin said, "I've been working the night shift on the north slope. If somebody had told me ten days ago -- " From the night shift to a ladies' luncheon with a potential First Lady -- it's like the plot of a Preston Sturges movie. As in a Sturges classic, darker themes lie underneath the excitement, the drama, the rollicking push forward these next two months.

The darkest theme is the animosity between two Americas who in fundamental ways do not understand one another. Both Barack Obama and John McCain talk about bringing this country together, but the debut of Sarah Palin on the national scene highlights the enormous difficulty either man as president will have making good on this promise. At the Cindy McCain luncheon, for example, two reporters on the press riser made fun of Sarah Palin's accent, and in the presence of the boy reporting on the event for Scholastic News. Not twenty minutes later, Elizabeth Hasselbeck, as moderator for the luncheon program, praised Cindy McCain's stint on The View by taking a backhand and largely gratuitous swipe at Michelle Obama and her guest appearance on the show. "She [Cindy] didn't come with a list of topics we weren't allowed to touch." As Vin Weber said earlier in the week, it's all about winning, and people do play for keeps. But in the past winners and losers have been able to come together, one way or another, around common values. On Wednesday night in the press filing room at the convention a group of journalists, eight or ten young men, ridiculed the men and women, their faces televised one after another in close-up, raised to the flag and singing the national anthem next door in the Xcel Center. When we no longer look at patriotism in the same way, what exactly is it that we share?

Over the next weeks, at least as far as the Vice-Presidential debate and perhaps longer, Sarah Palin will stand at the center of this divide. Love her or hate her, so many Americans will be focused upon her. The media and the campaigns have a very short time in which to find out who Sarah Palin really is. The salient question, in terms of the election dynamic, is not about this or that policy decision -- whether Governor Palin did or did not do this or that about the bridge/road to nowhere/somewhere. The important question is whether, in terms of small-town values, she is the real thing or a fraud. And a possible endgame in this election is that liberal media, particularly in the blogosphere and on cable news, will through their ridicule and cultural misunderstanding so incense small-town America that they drive those voters into the McCain-Palin camp, just as surely as Bill Clinton drove African-American South Carolinians to Obama. Even Karl Rove left open the possibility for the exceptionalism of Election 2008. "In a normal election," Rove said, "the effect of the vice presidential candidate is minimal."

That McCain's acceptance speech Thursday night is merely an endnote both to the convention and to this piece and says much about the Republican dynamic right now. Anybody who didn't already know that John McCain cannot speechify knows it now. In print, his speech has some lovely moments, particularly when he confesses, "I fell in love with my country when I was a prisoner in someone else's." In re-telling his captivity narrative, McCain provides a moment or two of the soul-baring that many people have been asking him to deliver. The Obama Campaign has always saluted the power of the personal narrative and has encouraged volunteers to wield the persuasive power inherent in their own stories. Finally, McCain is doing the same. The problem is that he didn't do it first. Indeed many of the elements of his speech -- the call for change, the belief that we can work together to solve the country's problems, the roll-out of specific policy prescriptions, like raising the child tax exemption and providing more school choices -- Barack Obama has already trademarked. In the end, McCain's speech to the convention was rather boring -- and not just because of delivery and lack of the new.

One of the great ironies of Election 2008 is that John McCain, even as he is accused of being a warmonger, is really not as tough and aggressive as Barack Obama. Perhaps McCain has seen too much of man's inhumanity to man. It's as if something has been burned out of him, and therefore what's left -- a sweetness, an empathy, so at odds with the rest of his personality -- makes him seem inauthentic. Likely many Americans watching McCain on television Thursday night didn't believe McCain meant the things he said. Having seen him on the campaign trail, I think his intentions are genuine. But is empathy (as opposed to understanding) what Americans really want in 2008? I don't think so -- and that's why, in my opinion, all Barack Obama's many "I feel your pain" roundtables and town hall meetings are not delivering big poll numbers for him. Americans want a shake-up in politics and in the landscape -- and that takes tough. But Americans can be cautious, particularly when it comes to presidential elections. Can we trust him to shake it up right? That's going to be the final consideration this year. Sarah Palin, moreover, is going to factor into that determination -- however she plays.