The first night of the Republican's hurricane-delayed convention didn't matter--thanks to John McCain's decision to place Sarah Palin on his ticket. By choosing the little-known Alaska governor, who a short while ago was mayor of a small town and who has come to the national stage with soap opera in tow, McCain made Palin the story of this shortened week. There's more anticipation for her acceptance speech (on Wednesday night) than for his (Thursday night). George W. Bush, Fred Thompson, Rudy Giuliani—forget about 'em, only Palin truly counts.
But the first night did reveal what McCain's strategists are thinking—or worrying—about. The speakers focused over and over on McCain's experience as a Vietnam prisoner of war and devoted little time to his 21 years in the Senate. It was almost as if McCain's two-and-a-half decades in Congress were a dirty secret. And one of the main speeches of the night—delivered by former Senator Fred Thompson—was full of 1980s-styled Republican red meat. (Democrats support abortion rights and will raise YOUR taxes.) It seemed as if the convention planners were so concerned about the Republican base that they had to go back to the future and plagiarize the Reagan playbook. And throughout the night, there was practically no acknowledgment there's any economic pain in the world outside the Xcel Energy Center. The McCain people say, this election is about character, not issues. Tonight really proved that: McCain doesn't need to feel voters' pain; they need to feel his.
The Republicans were somewhat fortunate they only have three evenings to program, due to Hurricane Gustav. How many times can McCain's "service" be praised before a well-behaved, not-very-excited crowd of well-dressed, older and predominantly white Americans who sit in neat rows beneath an electronic billboard bearing the phrase "Country First" and who hold on their laps placards that proclaim, "Service"? And how many Teddy Roosevelt references?
McCain may be the top of the ticket, but Palin has been the main attraction. After the news of her teenage daughter's pregnancy emerged—and smothered rumors that Palin had faked a pregnancy to cover up a supposed earlier pregnancy—the convention seemed to freeze. At receptions, during panel discussions, and in hotel lobbies, there was no talk of Bush's speech, which was first canceled and then rescheduled (as a video address on Tuesday). And no talk of what would be in McCain's speech. The one question is, how will she do?
Throughout the day, Republican officeholders and delegates at the convention appeared to be standing by their woman, telling reporters she was the perfect pick and expressing no concerns about her experience on national security or about the sideshow stories surrounding her selection. "There isn't a family in America that cannot relate to what Sarah Palin is going through," Republican Governor Jon Huntsman Jr. of Utah said at a reception for the Republican Jewish Coalition. At the same event, Republican Governor Sonny Perdue of Georgia declared that Palin, "Will be a great soulmate in standing with John McCain against all evil in the world. He added, "She knows how to be a mother." (Perdue also blasted Barack Obama for "standing for appeasement of terrorists around the world.")
The only less-than-celebratory remark from a Republican regarding Palin I encountered came from Ken Khachigian, a speechwriter for Ronald Reagan and Richard Nixon. (A well-regarded political strategist, Khachigian worked for McCain during his 2000 presidential bid, but he was frozen out of the current campaign.) "High risk, high reward," he said of McCain's choice. Asked if he had any concern that Palin's not ready to be president, he replied that she may not be able to get up to speed on foreign policy matters before Election Day, but doing so by January 20 ought not be a problem for her.
But while everyone waited for Palin's speech, there was still an opening night to get through. Several videos were played celebrating other presidents who put country first: Lincoln, Roosevelt, Reagan, Bush I. (Reagan "saved America," according to one of these films.) Senator Norman Coleman declared that McCain "has a face that says yes." A high school student appeared on the podium and told the delegates that McCain "is working hard to rebuild our country." (She did not explain why this rebuilding was necessary after nearly eight years of George W. Bush.) A woman who had served in the military as a public affairs officials told a long story of the medical horrors she encountered after suffering a life-threatening blood clot in Bosnia; her point seemed to be that life is wonderful, regardless of the challenges that come. And, of course, repeated references to McCain's POW days poured forth from the podium.
In the first two hours of the night's program, there was essentially no mention of anything McCain had done in the U.S. Senate—until George W. Bush, speaking from the White House, praised McCain for supporting the so-called surge in Iraq. Bush said nothing else about any other specific McCain action in the Senate, yet Bush described McCain's stint as a POW in great detail. Citing his POW experience, Bush proclaimed that McCain's resolve will not be broken by "the angry left."
Then came Fred Thompson. He pooh-poohed Democratic talk of economic hard times. "Listening to them," he huffed, "you would think we were in the middle of a great depression...We know we have challenges.....We also know we live in the freest, most prosperous" country in the history of the world. Deriding Barack Obama as the creature of the Washington media, Thompson blasted Washington talk shows and the inside-the-Beltway cocktail circuit. (Political reporters in the arena snickered at this, knowing Thompson has always been a big fan of that cocktail circuit.) He criticized Obama for being a smooth talker who delivers speeches off TelePrompTers (while reading his own speech off a TelePrompTer). He promised that McCain will "drain the swamp" when "he gets to Washington." (Hasn't McCain been there for a quarter of a century?) He then offered another long detailed account of McCain's POW experience. ("Incredible heat beating on a tin roof....Boils the size of baseball under his arms....John McCain knows about hope. That's all he had.") He added that "being a POW doesn't qualify you to be president, but it does reveal character." But that was exactly what Thompson was suggesting.
After Thompson finished a highly partisan speech, Senator Joe Lieberman strode out and praised McCain as a bipartisan maverick, citing his legislative initiatives regarding campaign finance reform, immigration and climate change. (Subjects that did not draw cheers from the crowd.) "If John McCain is just another partisan Republican," Lieberman remarked, "then I'm Michael Moore's favorite Democrat." The applause faded quickly after Lieberman left the stage. And the delegates started filing out.
A low-energy evening was done. But McCain's strategists had revealed that they believe the Palin pick was not enough to galvanize the GOP base. And they played the POW card as if it's the only one in their deck. There was little, if any, mention of what McCain would do to help American voters in need should he become president. The arena this night was a policy-free zone. With its backward-looking emphasis on McCain the POW, the McCain camp appears to be betting that voters will neither ask, what have you done for us lately, or what will you do for me if elected? Now on to the main event: Sarah Palin.