ST. PAUL, Minn. – Once upon a time, John McCain promised to be a different kind of politician and a different kind of Republican. He was about straight talk, reform and nonpartisanship, a resolute foe of the slashing politics of the slaughterhouse.
McCain tried to get voters to remember that man in his acceptance speech Thursday night, the one who “worked with members of both parties to fix the problems that need to be fixed.” But that man has disappeared.
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McCain laced into “partisan rancor” and “the Washington crowd.” Yet this convention – including the speech by his running mate, Sarah Palin – dripped with divisive ridicule as speaker after speaker worked to aggravate the country's cultural schisms and replay worn-out harangues against liberals.
The Republican crowd here has gleefully played into the worst stereotypes of their party as a privileged class resistant to change.
When Rudy Giuliani referred to Barack Obama's past as a “community organizer,” the crowd broke into ugly, patronizing laughter. These, presumably, are people who never needed a neighborhood advocate. Imagine if Democrats ever reacted that way to someone who worked as an entrepreneur or a church leader.
McCain could not change his party, so he changed himself. McCain has pandered to a Republican right wing he once disdained on issue after issue, from oil drilling to immigration to tax cuts for the wealthy.
Just as important, he decided that his last chance for the presidency rests on a systematic effort to make the old politics of demonization work one more time. If McCain's convention is a prelude to the fall campaign, he will leave behind a legacy of bitterness that will turn his promise of a new day into ashes.
His single most cynical act was choosing Palin as his running mate, “cynical” being the word used by former adviser and friend Mike Murphy, the Republican consultant caught by an open microphone.
McCain knows that the first requirement in a running mate is preparation to succeed to the presidency. The choices he preferred, by all accounts, included Joe Lieberman and Tom Ridge, both plausible presidents.
But it became clear that their support for abortion rights rendered both men politically toxic, so McCain veered toward Palin. McCain barely knew her, and his campaign misled reporters about the extent to which she had been vetted.
Palin's address here got boffo reviews from many of the very “reporters and commentators” whose good opinion the Alaska governor dismissed, but her speech was as cynical as the decision to put her on the ticket.
She distorted Obama's views on taxes, mocked his eloquence and accused him of wanting “to reduce the strength of America in a dangerous world.” And she demonstrated how little she respects constitutional rights with this chilling declaration: “Al-Qaida terrorists still plot to inflict catastrophic harm on America; he's worried that someone won't read them their rights.”
But these thoughts, of course, were not really Palin's. They were words prepared by the campaign of John McCain, the unifier turned divider.
One night later, the unifier tried to come back, promising to reach out “to any willing patriot,” criticizing his own party, urging that we use “the best ideas from both sides” and pledging to “ask Democrats and independents to serve with me.”
It will be a hard sell because McCain has capitulated to the very Washington he condemned Thursday night and is employing the very tactics that were used ruthlessly and unfairly against him when he first ran for president eight years ago.
Perhaps the new McCain will claw his way to the White House. But it's the old McCain who deserved to be president. A single speech on a September night is not enough to resurrect the man who might once have brought the country together.