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McCain's Character

| Fri Sep. 5, 2008 3:56 PM EDT

McCAIN'S CHARACTER....Mark Schmitt on John McCain:

The notable difference, not just in the speeches but in the entirety of the two conventions, was that it is McCain who stands alone. He is the one whose platform is his own personal melodrama, the moment of doubt and pain after which, "I was never the same again. I wasn't my own man anymore. I was my country's." He's the one whose introductory video declared that he "was chosen for this moment," and "the stars are aligned" for his victory. Who's the messiah, now?

Yep. McCain's speech, like the rest of the Republican convention, was an unremitting paean to the character of John McCain. That character is what McCain wants this entire campaign to be about, but only if he can do it on his own terms. Those terms, however, are worth a closer look.

McCain likes to present his past as past and his time in a prison camp as a transformative experience, but the fact is that his experience as a POW transformed nothing. In fact, it amplified his fundamental belief in his own self-righteousness, something he's used ever since as an unending justification for his worst impulses. He was 31 years old when he was captured by the North Vietnamese and 36 when he was released. When he was 43 he abandoned his injured wife for a younger woman and married into a fortune. When he was 51 he intervened with regulators on behalf of his pal Charles Keating and ended up enmeshed in the Keating Five scandal — a scandal he initially tried to blame on his wife when his role became public. When he was 61 he was amusing a partisan crowd with boorish jokes about Chelsea Clinton. When he was 64 he was pandering to Southern racism by refusing to condemn the confederate flag flying over South Carolina's statehouse.

And then there's the second part of this pattern: McCain's famous remorse. As Dan Schnur put it, "He is the best apologizer in politics." And so he is. His treatment of his first wife, he told Rick Warren a few weeks ago, was his "greatest moral failing." Intervening for Charles Keating, he eventually admitted, was "the wrong thing to do." His Chelsea joke was "stupid and cruel and insensitive." His handling of the confederate flag controversy was a "sacrifice of principle for personal ambition."

This year he's 72 but things are no different. Instead of running a decent and honorable campaign, he and his surrogates are reigniting a culture war he doesn't even believe in; relentlessly belittling and trivializing instead of addressing serious issues; repeatedly accusing his opponent of not caring about his country; stubbornly refusing to condemn even the vilest character assassinations; and finally choosing a manifestly unprepared and unvetted running mate in order to gain a momentary political advantage with a Christian right base that has never trusted him but that he needs to win the election. He's doing all this because, as his convention speech made clear, he believes he's on a higher mission. His character is what this campaign is about — or rather his own image of his character — and it's this belief in his own self-righteousness that allows him to justify his every action with a clear conscience. He has to win, you see, for the good of the country. He's the only man who can do it.

And that's the most dangerous attitude of all, because a person who believes that can talk himself into almost anything. And if it doesn't work out? He'll apologize later.

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McCain's Domestic Policies: As Old As He Is

| Fri Sep. 5, 2008 2:38 PM EDT

Even though he's 72, I never really think of John McCain as old, at least until he is forced to discuss domestic policy. It's not entirely his fault. When forced to make a nod to less manly subjects such as health care and education and other items not related to the war or foreign policy, his entire party's domestic policy offerings have changed little since Newt Gingrich was king of the Capitol. Case in point: Last night, McCain said he opposed Obama's "health-care system where a bureaucrat stands between you and your doctor."

It's the same argument Republicans used in 1994 to kill off the Clinton health plan. But much has changed since the debut of Harry and Louise 14 years ago, and the recycled line seems hugely out of touch with reality. This past year, my family has been forced to switch health plans three times, and every one of these plans has not only a different set of rules, gatekeepers, and attendant paperwork, but also of approved doctors. How long can Republicans continue to insist that a government-sponsored plan would be worse than this? Government doesn't have a monopoly on bureaucracy. Some of my health care plans make the Post Office look efficient.

Russia Update

| Fri Sep. 5, 2008 2:20 PM EDT

RUSSIA UPDATE....Dan Drezner continues to track the price Russia is paying for its invasion of South Ossetia and Abkhazia. It's worth paying attention to. As Dan says, "no one should be under any illusion that the regime is about to collapse or anything," but it hasn't been a freebie for Putin either. The whole affair also demonstrates another truism about foreign policy: not everything in the world requires an immediate and direct "response." It pleases guys like Bill Kristol and ratchets up the game of chicken, but sometimes playing a longer game can punish bad behavior a lot more safely and a lot more effectively.

Troopergate

| Fri Sep. 5, 2008 1:37 PM EDT

TROOPERGATE....The latest on the Troopergate investigation:

ABC News has exclusively learned that Alaska Senator Hollis French will announce today that he is moving up the release date of his investigation into whether Gov. Sarah Palin abused her office to get the Alaska public safety commissioner, Walt Monegan, fired. The results of the investigation were originally scheduled for release Oct. 31 but will now come almost three weeks earlier, according to sources.

Hmmm. Obviously this could be bad for Palin if the final report is both negative and persuasive. On the other hand, if it looks like French, a Democrat, is moving up the date for purely political purposes, it could actually make things easier on her. Perhaps we'll have a better read on this later today after French makes his announcement and explains what's going on.

McCain and the Surge

| Fri Sep. 5, 2008 1:19 PM EDT

McCAIN AND THE SURGE....Jon Chait finally says something that I suspect everyone knows but that nobody has bothered to point out: when John McCain tells us endlessly about his bravery in supporting the surge, he's just making stuff up. There was nothing brave about it at all:

Back in 2006, McCain was still anathema to most of the party base and elite. He needed to find issues of agreement with the administration. The surge was perfectly suited for that end. Sure, it carried some risk of hurting McCain in a general election, but McCain's issue was finding a way to get nominated. After that, he could always finesse the surge if it wasn't working, or rely on his war hero/maverick image.

I'm not saying McCain took up the surge for political reasons. Surely he believed in it. But this wa a case where his beliefs dovetailed perfectly with his political interests. His persuasion of the political press corps is a triumph of spin.

I've never before bothered mentioning this myself, mainly because I guess I figured it didn't really matter much. But although the members of the Baker Commission counseled limited withdrawal from Iraq, the fact is that the surge was almost instantly popular among the Republican base and was supported by virtually every Republican politician. During the GOP primary, the major candidates practically held a competition to figure out who was really the biggest surge supporter. The political risk of supporting the surge was nil, and that would have been the case whether or not Bush had ordered it. It's just another bedtime story designed to stoke McCain's self-image of moral bravery and supposed service to a cause greater than his own political career.

Unemployment

| Fri Sep. 5, 2008 1:01 PM EDT

UNEMPLOYMENT....The unemployment rate jumped to 6.1% last month. The chart on the right is courtesy of Brad DeLong, who says simply, "It's already as deep in the unemployment metric as the 1980 recession."

Which, of course, makes it all the more remarkable that the Republican Party just held a 4-day nationally televised convention with dozens of speakers and managed to only barely even mention the economy. John McCain finally got around to it last night, briefly mentioning "tough times" and then devoting a few sentences to the subject, but that was about it. And his heart pretty obviously wasn't in it even for those few sentences.

If McCain loses in November, that's going to be one of the biggest reasons why. Sarah Palin aside, he simply doesn't sound like he understands what's really going on out in the outside world, and when he's forced to talk about it he has nothing to say. Republican orthodoxy forbids any serious response — forbids, in fact, even the possibility of an effective response other than yet another round of tax cuts — so it's best to mutter a few bromides and move on. And that's what he does.

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Palin and the Media

| Fri Sep. 5, 2008 12:23 PM EDT

PALIN AND THE MEDIA....Howard Fineman, Ben Smith, and Chuck Todd are all reporting the same thing: the McCain campaign is going to whisk Sarah Palin back to Alaska and then have her hole up for a good long while until they think it's safe for her to talk to the press. The excuse will be that she needs to tie up loose ends and see off her son Track, who's deploying to Iraq on September 11th. Perhaps the supposedly horrible treatment she's received by the media will also be trotted out.

But I say: don't believe it. These guys are being suckered with misinformation so that the McCain campaign will have yet another excuse to pretend that the media is bent on making up egregious lies about Palin. I don't think she's going to be talking to a horde of serious national journalists, but they'll pick some spots and do a few remotes. Maybe Larry King, despite pulling out of his show a few days ago. One or more of the morning shows. Some simpatico outlets like Fox News or the New York Post or the Wall Street Journal edit page. That kind of thing.

But I'll bet it won't be radio silence.

McCain's Big Speech: More Prison Cell Than Policy

| Fri Sep. 5, 2008 1:19 AM EDT

Number of sentences in John McCain's acceptance speech about his experience as a POW in Vietnam: 43.

Number of sentences about his 25 years in the House and Senate: 8.

The convention ended as it began: a commemoration of McCain's hellish years in a Hanoi prison cell four decades ago. The political equation was a simple one: POW equals patriotic hero equals a fighting president. Before McCain walked down the long runway at St. Paul's Xcel Center, a baritone voice declared over the P.A., "When you've lived in a box....you put your people first." Case closed.

But there was a speech to get through. And before McCain arrived at the climactic I-was-a-POW finale, he delivered, in wooden style, a no-better-than-par speech that was mostly a series of traditional GOP buzz phrases: lower taxes, cut spending, open markets. He noted, "We believe in a strong defense, work, faith, service, a culture of life, personal responsibility, the rule of law, and judges who dispense justice impartially and don't legislate from the bench. We believe in the values of families, neighborhoods and communities." (Just not community organizers.) Was the speechwriter who penned Sarah Palin's acceptance speech too busy to work on McCain's?

Unlike most speakers at the convention, McCain acknowledged that some Americans are facing tough times. "I fight for Bill and Sue Nebe from Farmington Hills, Michigan, who lost their real estate investments in the bad housing market," he said. "Bill got a temporary job after he was out of work for seven months. Sue works three jobs to help pay the bills." And he said he would fight for Jake and Toni Wimmer of Franklin County, Pennsylvania. "Jake," he explained, "works on a loading dock; coaches Little League, and raises money for the mentally and physically disabled. Toni is a schoolteacher, working toward her Master's Degree. They have two sons, the youngest, Luke, has been diagnosed with autism." But how would McCain help these folks? Moments later, he offered a dumbed-down version of his economic plan: " I will keep taxes low and cut them where I can. My opponent will raise them. I will open new markets to our goods and services. My opponent will close them. I will cut government spending. He will increase it." (By the way, many analysts and journalists have repeatedly noted that Obama's economic plan would cut income taxes far more than McCain for Americans below the top 1 percent.)

Wage Insurance

| Fri Sep. 5, 2008 12:56 AM EDT

WAGE INSURANCE....Here's an interesting passage from John McCain's speech tonight:

Government assistance for the unemployed workers was designed for the economy of the 1950s. That's going to change on my watch....For workers in industries that have been hard-hit, we'll help make up part of the difference in wages between their old job and a temporary, lower paid one, while they receive re-training that will help them find secure new employment at a decent wage.

McCain is talking here about "wage insurance," a proposal that's been bubbling around in neoliberal circles for over a decade and has considerable (though not unanimous) support among Democrats. McCain, I think, has mentioned wage insurance in passing a few times before, but as far as I know he's never really committed himself to it. And unless it's buried somewhere that I missed, it's not part of the economic plan on his website.

But tonight, in a speech with very few specific policy details, he committed himself firmly to supporting a wage insurance plan if he becomes president. Why? Was it just because he didn't really have much else in the way of economic proposals that he thought might appeal to ordinary families? Was it a throwaway line? Or is he serious about it?

McCain's Speech

| Fri Sep. 5, 2008 12:11 AM EDT

McCAIN'S SPEECH....Like Hillary Clinton, John McCain isn't a naturally great speaker, and that showed tonight. Overall, his acceptance speech struck me as flat and pedestrian, full of boilerplate and talking points.

But that's not to say it wasn't effective. It might well have been. For one thing, McCain successfully dialed down the red meat, something he desperately needed to do after last night's culture war fest. He addressed substantive issues more than previous speakers. He was good on the bipartisan roots of corruption in Washington — which didn't go over so well on the convention floor but probably did at home. And he was very good, I thought, when he was talking about war and national security. He sounded like the farthest thing imaginable from a hawkish neocon, and his line about working to build good relations with Russia while not overlooking aggression was just what the doctor ordered. Nobody watching this speech would guess that this was a man who never met a war he didn't like.

And the peroration at the end? It seemed to me like he was trying to match Barack Obama's brand of soaring rhetoric, but it didn't work. It's just not something McCain can pull off, and it clearly didn't raise the house the way Obama's final few minutes at Invesco Field did.

Still: it was workmanlike and competent and he hit most of his marks — though some of those marks (e.g., his support for a culture of life) didn't get hit with much passion. But the base didn't need any more pumping up after yesterday, so that's probably not a problem. Bottom line: I have my doubts that this speech is going to sway a lot of votes, but it was OK.

On a slightly different note, though, are the convention planners idiots? Did they really have him standing in front of a green screen for minutes on end during the middle part of his speech? It looked terrible.

And I guess they decided that Heart's "Barraucda" would be Sarah Palin's theme song after all. They didn't play that last night, did they?