Elegy for a Maverick

By E. J. Dionne Jr.
Friday, September 5, 2008

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 last night, the one who "worked with members of both parties to fix the problems that need to be fixed." But that man has disappeared.

The stage in the middle of the cavernous Xcel Energy Center was rearranged so McCain could conjure the feel of the town hall meetings he loves as he laced into "partisan rancor" and "the Washington crowd." Yet a set change could not disguise the fact that this convention -- including the big speech Wednesday 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 weak 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" Wednesday, 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.

And it's unlikely that even a convention of the American Petroleum Institute would erupt into raucous chants of "drill, baby, drill!"

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 when it became clear that their support for abortion rights rendered both men politically toxic, McCain veered toward the last-minute pick of Palin. McCain barely knew her, and his campaign misled reporters about the extent to which she had been vetted. It was a political choice: Palin, McCain hopes, will help him win over women and rally social conservatives.

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.

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