07 February 2008

Mac at CPAC

McCain was wise to drop the rumored video introduction from Ronald Reagan, as that would have been received with scoffing and derision. But not too loudly, as organizers demanded that the crowd for the McCain speech would not boo. It is telling that Fox News offered absolutely no crowd reaction shots or reporter stand ups with the crowd during their CPAC coverage.

His speech was reticent and somewhat conciliatory in tone towards conservative, which is in sharp contrast to the simmer down message from McCain campaign flacks after Florida. So it was not a repeat of Nelson Rockefeller giving the rhetorical finger to conservatives at the 1964 San Francisco convention.

On the stump, McCain is no great communicator. He may not stumble over phrasing like either Presidents Bush, but he seems incapable of delivering a barnburner. Instead of taking a conversational tone, which has been the convention in the last couple of cycles, but was speaking like a textbook, especially about conservative principles. McCain kept stepping over obvious applause lines, which is surprising for a 24 year political veteran (but maybe he did not know the speech’s rhythm as it was newly inserted material).

I may have been a skeptical audience but I wanted to hear his speech, but it was making me daydream even when the speaker was trying to ingratiate himself. Perhaps the speech would read better than it sounded, but it was certainly not a Williams Jennings Bryant stump speech. It is no wonder that on Super Duper Tuesday networks immediately cut away from McCain the second that Obama approached the podium. Obama’s high flowing rhetoric may not have much meaning, but it is easy on the ears.

McCain tried to use humor a couple of times during his CPAC speech, with little charm. McCain asked to be pardoned for missing last year’s CPAC so that he was not considered to be the front runner was as lame as it was received by the crowd. Aside from having no elements of truth to the rationale, he was too wordy. Ironic criticism from a modern day English baroque writer. But wit has to be quick. The listener should not notice the wind up to a joke before it goes into the pitch. Moreover, humor needs to have some element of truth then hit the listener unexpectedly. McCain’s long set up for the wan humor took away any charm from his self-deprecating comment.

Another playful theme within the speech was a couple of allusions that conservatives will not let me forget when they disagree with me on principled public policy decisions. But not that the base’s opinions matter for his maverick manner of McCain Feingold Campaign Finance Law, the Gang of 14 deal allowing just a trick of judicial nominations and the proposed McCain Leiberman cap and trade global warming legislation. These departures with core conservatism are not laugh lines in this crowd.

Senator McCain managed to only invoke Ronald Reagan twice. Alas, he used the phrase “A footsoldier in the Reagan Revolution” only once. After the Republican debate at the Reagan Library, that catch phrase had all the makings of a drinking game. I do not fault McCain for trying to associate himself with Renaldus Magnus. Maybe one can find similar elements in their desired public policies (but I’m dubious about Global Warming, Shamnesty, or Campaign Finance). But to be honest, McCain does not evoke the optimism that Reagan did. So much of McCain’s CPAC speak either looked back on his past or made claims about what he would not do, there was very little about what he would do, aside from tired bromides.

To my ears, McCain only made three references to his military service during the CPAC speech. At least he is more subtle about touting his martial experience than John Fing Kerry (he served in Vietnam, you know!). The first time that McCain cited his POW experience in the campaign was during a debate when he said that he could not attend Woodstock because he “[W]as otherwise detained”. That was graceful and charming. It was a big deal. Now it seems cited like a credential and a prospective applause line.

The continued references to his laudable military sacrifice just reinforces the framework that McCain is running on biography and that it was his turn. That did not work well for Bob Dole, because he failed to define his campaign so supporters could easily understand it.

Now for the substance... McCain wants to be remembered for ending Budget Earmarks. He certainly has a voting record that shows that he did not engage in earmarks. Skeptics can question for the years he was in the Senate Majority as a powerful Chairman what he did about this practice. So McCain says that he will veto any bill with an earmark in it. While I fault the current administration for not vetoing enough legislation, the threat of the Executive’s veto pen still has some sway. I suspect that that it will take the newly enlarged Democratic congressional majorities a bit longer to override the veto and make a President McCain a total eunuch in his first year.

He also claims that he will block any expansion of entitlements. That sounds great when speaking to a conservative conventions, but what will he do when the New York Times runs a front page story about women and children being impacted first by this cruel cutoff? Then there is a cognitive dissonance between McCain’s claim of no entitlements and the fact that McCain was willing to regularize illegal immigrants with permanent Z visas and give them back social security payments all for paying a $2,000 fine. That is a pretty whopping entitlement, isn’t it. Oh, but McCain Kennedy will never be signed (because it is dead in this Congress). Is this pandering to the base or real governing philosophy?

In order to appeal to the fiscal conservative wing of the party, McCain proposed repealing the Alternative Minimum Tax and lowering the corporate tax rate. Sounds good to conservatives, but Democrats are in a taxing mood and somebody has to pay for all of new Congress’ spending.

It’s clear that McCain gets the radical jihadi’s war on us. He will stand rock solid in fighting on the ground in Iraq. McCain’s address also chided Congress for sitting on the FISA “wiretap” waivers. Good for him. But McCain insisted that President Bush had to run this national security feature by Congress instead of relying on War Powers. So much for relying on Congress.

McCain was booed when he alluded to immigration reform. McCain kept his temper under control and respectfully disagreed. He said what conservatives wanted to hear by securing the border first, but made no mention of the wall. There is just a credibility gap between McCain’s rhetoric and his record on the matter. In addition, Senator McCain’s advisor is a Dr. Juan Hernandez, a dual Mexican-American citizen who was the Mexican Minister for Migration during the Presidente Vincente Fox’s administration. Hernandez is McCain’s Hispanic outreach coordinator so I doubt that he has changed his open borders philosophy.

In conclusion, efforts are being made to achieve party unity. In a discrete conservative setting, the presumptive nominee is saying the right thing to the base. It is just a question of whether he should be believed, or that we blindly belief because the alternative is worse.

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