McCain's mixed message

John McCain's nomination acceptance speech in St. Paul, Minn., Thursday night shaped up as the capstone of two of the more unusual — and for that reason riveting — national political conventions in recent memory. The Democrats' gathering in Denver last week was dominated by the family feud subtext: Would Hillary Rodham Clinton deliver for the man who beat her out for the nomination? Would Bill Clinton? In the end, that drama probably played to the party's benefit: Neither Clinton strayed; many if not most Clinton supporters were mollified; and Barack Obama's nomination acceptance speech drew a record audience.

Likewise, the combination of an unscheduled hurricane and an unexpected vice presidential nominee added interest to a Republican convention that had been written off as a snore. Hurricane Gustav had the salutary double benefit of letting the GOP make amends for its Katrina bumbling and of keeping President Bush and Vice President Cheney away from the actual convention site. Indeed, the Bush-Cheney team was all but air-brushed from the convention. Meanwhile, McCain's choice of the Alaska governor as his running mate, and the intense interest in her family that followed, made Palin's speech must-see TV. The 37 million-plus viewers she attracted nearly equaled Obama's audience.

So McCain's task Thursday night was different. He did not need to introduce himself to the American people or assure them that he has the necessary experience, but he did need to explain the recalibrated rationale for his candidacy. For months, McCain had been saying that the central basis of his campaign was to help lead the country in responding to the transcendent threat of Islamic extremism, and that the neophyte Obama could not be trusted to keep the nation secure. In choosing Palin, McCain veered in a sharply different direction. He subordinated the national security message — it is hard to reconcile the attack on Obama as neophyte with the choice of a governor with scant foreign policy experience — to return to another tried-and-true McCain theme: the nominee as maverick change agent. Thursday night, McCain planned to offer, according to excerpts of his speech released ahead of delivery, "an advance warning to the old, big-spending, do-nothing, me-first, country-second Washington crowd: Change is coming."

Though his party has controlled the White House for the past eight years and Congress for most of that time, maybe the tired old anti-Washington riff will work again. But what, exactly, is the change that McCain would bring? Would vetoing earmarks change Washington for the better — or complicate efforts to forge a governing coalition on issues from health care to trade to energy policy?

McCain built an image as a bipartisan bridge-builder long before Obama arrived on the national scene, and he referred to that record Thursday night. "The constant partisan rancor that stops us from solving these problems isn't a cause, it's a symptom," he said. "It's what happens when people go to Washington to work for themselves and not you. Again and again, I've worked with members of both parties to fix problems that need to be fixed. That's how I will govern as president. I will reach out my hand to anyone to help me get this country moving again. I have that record and the scars to prove it. Senator Obama does not."

That melding of bipartisan appeal with partisan attack may not be surprising to hear at a party convention. The Democrats' conclave in Denver had its share of the same. But the jarring juxtaposition may not be what independent voters who are genuinely frustrated by gridlock in Washington are looking for.

— The Washington Post

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