A Maverick's Appeal

Friday, September 5, 2008

IN ACCEPTING the Republican nomination for president last night, John McCain confronted a different challenge from Democrat Barack Obama's test in Denver last week. His task was not to introduce himself to the American people or to assure them that he has the necessary experience. Rather, Mr. McCain faced the unusual situation of distancing himself from the Republican president he hopes to succeed and, to some extent, from the party whose nomination he was accepting. In doing so, Mr. McCain offered a significantly different rationale than the one he presented in launching his candidacy 17 months ago. He subordinated what had been his major theme -- leading America in "a global struggle with violent extremists who despise us" -- to one that hearkened more to the John McCain of the 2000 primary campaign: a renegade fighter for the bread-and-butter concerns of ordinary Americans against "the old big-spending, do-nothing, me-first, country-second Washington crowd." Mr. McCain mentioned Iraq only briefly, and President Bush even less. He warned of the continuing threat of al-Qaeda, but he devoted more time to Russian aggression against "the brave people of Georgia," even while assuring voters that they "need not fear a return of the Cold War" in a McCain administration. But Mr. McCain's recalibrated message, reinforced and perhaps required by his choice of Alaska Gov. Sarah Palin to be his running mate, focused much more on dealing with the nation's domestic woes. Being a "maverick," Mr. McCain said, means that "I understand who I work for. I don't work for a party. I don't work for a special interest. I don't work for myself. I work for you."

If the tone of many speakers who preceded Mr. McCain at this convention in St. Paul, Minn., was slashing about Mr. Obama and the Democrats, Mr. McCain took his moment instead to buttress his image as someone who was a bipartisan bridge-builder long before Mr. Obama arrived on the national scene. "I have that record and the scars to prove it," he said. "Senator Obama does not."

Although he did not refrain from criticizing Mr. Obama -- on taxes, jobs, education, trade and health care -- Mr. McCain's approach was noticeably softer toward his opponent than Mr. Obama's last week, when he portrayed the Arizona senator as someone so out of touch he simply "doesn't get" the stresses felt by ordinary Americans. Much of Mr. McCain's speech seemed a tacit rebuttal of that assertion as he described the trials of working Americans facing hard times.

Pushed in part by the weakening economy, in part by changing conditions overseas, the two nominees have placed themselves more on the same field of combat as the final stretch begins than they were some months ago. Two U.S. senators, they both present themselves as outsider critics of Washington who will bring change to the practices and policies of the capital, but who both presented agendas that deviated little from party dogma. They both focus on the anxieties and insecurity of American workers in a globalizing economy. Last night, Mr. McCain promised to fight for workers who have been "left behind in a changing economy" and argued that the solution is not "wishing away the global economy," as he accused Mr. Obama of doing by opposing free-trade agreements. Mr. Obama would bristle, no doubt, at that characterization and argue that he has the better formula for engaging with the world. That sets the stage for a critical debate between the two candidates in the weeks to come.

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