WASHINGTON -- A conservative academic, angered that I had gone on television and criticized John McCain's acceptance speech, vented to a friend: "Whose side is he on anyway?"
How about the side of well-crafted speeches that advocate and explain innovative policy and occasionally surprise you into thought? By these standards, at both conventions, it was the year of speaking conventionally.
Barack Obama's effort was numbingly typical in rhetoric, argument and policy -- the Platonic form of the Democratic stump speech -- designed to diffuse voter concerns about the newness and risks of his candidacy by assuring them that he is indistinguishable from every other Democratic politician. In this he succeeded -- and, in a Democratic year, his approach may yield political advantages. But in the process, Obama squandered an important historical moment, along with the initial promise and idealism of his candidacy.
McCain's acceptance speech attempted to fill the gaps left by Obama's narrow Democratic appeal, avoiding even the appearance of partisanship, and twice offering an outstretched hand to the other party. His criticisms of Republican corruption and spending excesses in the last eight years were politically necessary and obviously heartfelt -- does anyone believe McCain has been happy under recent Republican leaders, whom he regularly used for spitball practice? Again and again, McCain positioned himself as a fighter for the interests of the citizen and the nation against the demands of politics and party, including the Republican Party.
And then the policy came -- like a trickling stream in a wide, dry riverbed. He promised to veto wasteful spending, support community colleges, encourage charter schools and educational choice, cut taxes, build nuclear plants and drill oil wells. All these things may be necessary. None of them are creative, interesting or bold. There was no proposal in the speech that unexpectedly appealed to the political middle, creatively peeled off some Democratic constituency, or boldly modified the Republican brand. Is there anyone who sits in McCain strategy sessions, raises a hand, and insists, "This policy is conventional and weak"?
At one point in the speech, McCain said that Americans are "ambitious by nature." But speeches are ambitious by design and intention. And this speech, on policy matters, was timid.
Other choices on Thursday night were also questionable. Was it really necessary for a candidate of his years to remind young voters that he actually remembers Pearl Harbor? As in Obama's speech, McCain's applause lines showed little craft or care -- "We're going to change that!" "Americans know better than that!" (The contrast to the memorable, original and refined phrasing of the Sarah Palin speech was stark.) Portions of the speech -- "I will keep taxes low and cut them where I can. My opponent will raise them. ... I will cut government spending. He will increase it." -- were intended to be simple and plain spoken. They came across as simplistic rather than simple. And with apologies to Bill and Sue Nebe from Farmington Hills, Mich. -- no doubt fine people -- the use of swing state sympathy stories is clearly more of a Democratic skill than a Republican one.
But as McCain's speech neared its end and became more personal, its ambitions finally rose, its tone shifted and the whole effort was very nearly salvaged. Thursday's retelling of McCain's personal story had a moving and creative twist, emphasizing the lessons McCain took from his brokenness instead of his defiance and fortitude. He had been "blessed by misfortune" and reclaimed from selfishness by the strange grace of his own suffering and failures. "My country saved me," he explained with genuine simplicity. And we believed him, in awe and in tears.
In this campaign, McCain's story is an epic novel while Obama's personal experience is an inspiring article from Reader's Digest. But the strength of the personal parts of McCain's speech, and the weakness of its policy, illustrate a larger challenge to the McCain campaign. Bob Dole was a candidate of biography and careless about policy. Bill Clinton the New Democrat and George W. Bush the compassionate conservative had more typical biographies, but challenged the ideological conventions of their times and their parties in serious and appealing ways.
John McCain is a hero who has laid claim to the mantle of reform. Some actual and unexpected reform would help his case.