He pledged "to get the country moving again," a classic "out" party message (and one JFK had used against Richard Nixon in 1960 at the end of the Eisenhower years). French President Nicolas Sarkozy pulled this counterintuitive outsider trick off last year, running as an insurgent even though the unpopular incumbent, Jacques Chirac, was from his own party. McCain hopes to play Sarkozy to Bush's Chirac, and do it partly via Hillary Clinton.
For Sarah Palin's other contribution to McCain is to point him downward, toward the lunch-bucket concerns of the working-class voters that Hillary won in the primaries. McCain's politics of honor can be as unsatisfyingly abstract as Obama's politics of hope. No more. With a new Palin-enabled populism, McCain the "fighter" for you evoked the struggle "to buy groceries, fill your gas tank and make your mortgage payment."
All to the good. Yet McCain can't succeed unless he sells a domestic agenda to match a populist message of change. Most of the time, his convention was hermetically sealed from substance. At its worst, it was reminiscent of 1992, when Republicans thought harsh put-downs of the upstart Democrat and paeans to their candidate's biography would carry the day. It didn't, and Bob Dole couldn't beat Bill Clinton with a war record in 1996, either.
Everything the McCain campaign has done in the past two months, from the "celeb" ads to the choice of Palin, speaks to an unexpected vitality and fearlessness. McCain is in the race; now he needs to tell voters exactly how the McCain-Palin years would be better for them.