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What do John McCain, Sarah Palin, and Jimmy Buffet Have in Common?

Sean Evans, Chair and Associate Professor of Political Science
Sep 5, 2008

Watching John McCain’s acceptance speech last night, I was reminded of Jimmy Buffet’s song “Fins.” So with apologies to Buffet, let my paraphrase by describing the convention as “Palin to the right, McCain to the middle (and a little to the left), we’re the only change game in town” [Parrottheads know how to act while singing this].

Because in placing McCain’s speech in the narrative of the convention as a whole, it seems that McCain has chosen Palin to mobilize the right. And from all indications that has worked. One commentator last night said that polls show that Palin has cut the intensity gap between McCain and Obama in half. With conservatives safely behind him, McCain spent last night’s speech going right after independent, centrist voters and working class whites in several ways.

After thanking his family for their support and making his career possible, McCain let everyone know who his real audience for the speech was. Looking straight into the camera, he said, “To Americans who have yet to decide who to vote for, thank you for your consideration and the opportunity to win your trust. I intend to earn it.” He then proceeded to make his appeal.

First, he showed his bipartisan credentials. He congratulated Obama on his nomination and mentioned how more unites his supporters and McCain’s than divides us. This was his way of saying that he would change the tone of Washington. He then stated that after he wins, that he is going to reach out to anyone to help change America and make it start working for them. Later in the speech, he also said that he would “reach out his hands to members of both parties” and sit down with them to solve the problems facing America. And he doesn’t care who gets the credit as long as problems gets solved.

Second, he emphasized his change credentials focusing on his maverick image. He began this by talking about how Palin represents this change and will work with him to “shake up Washington.” He said that being a maverick means “I understand who I work for. I don't work for a party. I don't work for a special interest. I don't work for myself. I work for you.” He then listed all of the groups he fought like corrupt politicians, pork barrel spenders, lobbyists stealing from Indian tribes, defense contractors, tobacco companies, drug companies, and union bosses. He even included members of his own party in this list. With his list, he provided a record of fighting for change which implicitly contrasts with Obama who talks about change but has not done anything to bring it. Or as McCain says, “I have the scars to prove it.”

Third, he distanced himself from his party in clear terms. He fought corrupt Republicans and big spending Republicans. He acknowledged that times are tough for many citizens implicitly accepting the Democrat’s criticism of the economy. He acknowledged what many conservative and other citizens believe by saying that Republicans went to Washington to change it but Washington changed them. He then listed where they fell by the wayside in corruption, spending, big oil. This is someone who recognizes the problems and is ready to change them.

Fourth, McCain identified his struggle and fight with everyday American’s struggle. He acknowledged tough economic times and jobs disappearing. He said that he understood the Nebe’s in MI facing a bad housing market and would fight for them. He understands the health problems of the Wimmer’s of PA and will fight for them. He understands the Stanley’s who list a son in Iraq and fights for them. This implicitly rebuts Democrat’s charge that McCain just doesn’t get it. And this and the ending crescendo of his speech emphasizing his desire to stand up for America and fight for them contrasts himself with Obama. McCain is the fighter/doer while Obama is the talker.

Fifth, he connects this larger struggle to putting country first. Over and over, he mentioned putting country first and being an American over a partisan and putting principle above politics. The most compelling part of the speech was his story of being selfish but how his imprisonment in the Hanoi Hilton as a prisoner of war changed it. His fellow soldiers saved him by feeding him, supporting him, and helping him survive. At that point, he learned to love his country and put away self and became his country’s man. This story compellingly demonstrates his love for country in a way that everyone can believe it and reinforces that he will pursue what is best for the nation.

Sixth, he spent time on three policy areas that directly address concerns of most Americans: job retraining, education, and energy independence. Acknowledging that the global economy causes people to lose their jobs, he promises to work to create new jobs instead of trying to save jobs that won’t come back. In fact, his proposals for salary compensation, job training, etc. comes directly from the Democrat’s playbook on the Trade Adjustment Act.

Claiming that education is the “civil rights” of this century appealed both to those who acknowledge our schools are not performing well and to African-Americans who know education is the key to prosperity. It also changes the debate on affirmative action from preferences to opportunity. Emphasizing choice (public and private), accountability, merit pay, firing bad teachers, he goes after the Democrats weak link in their ties to teacher’s unions and focuses on a popular agenda.

On energy independence, he makes it a national security imperative by saying we need to avoid giving money to those who hate us. He also made the obvious point that it will require both alternative energy and production. He may have emphasized drilling too much but it is very popular. Emphasizing nuclear was important because it is the short term solution and is cheap and clean.

All these proposals and frames are clearly meant to appeal to centrist voters and working class voters with Democratic leanings. If anything, he is trying to revive the Reagan coalition by changing the policies to bring those who feel ignored back into the Republican fold. In this respect, he is trying to make the GOP the Wal-Mart party instead of the up-scale party of the mid-20th Century.

But while the strategy was good, there were problems in the delivery. As many of our students who watched it said, they gave it a 6 or 7 on a scale of 1 to 10. First, McCain was too repetitive in his putting country first. Make the point and move on.

Second, the speech seemed a little incoherent in that he was unable to connect the different parts of his speech. He tells the stories of three families but never connects to policies he supports. How does his vision (bipartisan problem solving putting the country first) connect to Republican issues of low taxes, open markets, low spending, life, judges, etc. (aren't they the ones primarily pursued last eight years?) and process (what do you do if Dems won't work with you -- which they won't because we have ideologically coherent and divergent parties)? How does his disparate policy proposals (traditional GOP issues with Dem job retraining bill, education as civil rights, invest in alternative energy -- not should we but how) form a coherence theme? David Brooks is right. This is hodgepodge and policy by improvisation.

Third, he needs to work on the smirky smile he has when he thinks that he has made a good point. It is like I know I made a good point, aren’t I good. That rubs people the wrong way.

Fourth, I, personally, thought "the country saved me" part was disconcerting. I thought the story he told of me, me, me to us, us, us was compelling and helped promote the country first idea. But by saying that the country saved him and living a life for the country, he told a conversion story familiar to evangelicals but replaced God with country and faith in God with faith in America. This takes the civil religious aspects of the presidency too far and deifies the US. And make no doubt, the US is a great country but the nation and our system is not divine. My colleague Micah Watson bloggs more about this point.

Fifth, he left some opening for his opponents. With his job retraining and energy independence proposals, if I were Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid, I would bring the Democratic version of the Trade Adjustment Act and the “Gang of Ten” energy proposal to the floor and get McCain to convince Republicans to pass them. If not, they can claim it is the same old Republican party and neither McCain nor the Republicans are true "agents of change." Democrats can also attack him as a “Johnny Come Lately” to acknowledging the economic problems. They can claim this is just a desperate ploy to win like the Palin choice. If Democrats can show a series of “political” moves, they can undermine the maverick image.

Sixth, I think that he is trying to put the Reagan coalition back together (when its numbers are shrinking) and is not really going after new and growing groups in the electorate. Potential short term gain but long term problem for GOP.

All in all, McCain had a good strategy but poor execution. I imagine that he will get a slight bump from the convention which will tie the race back up in the polls. We then head on to the debates and the last two months of the campaign to what will probably be another close election.