This is supposed to be a change election, and John McCain certainly has changed. The Arizona senator, who accepted the Republican nomination for president Thursday night, has morphed from a maverick with broad appeal into just another hard-edged conservative relying on cynical judgments and old-fashioned rhetoric to rally his party's unenthusiastic base in hopes of a narrow victory in November.
The Republican National Convention worked mightily this week to change the subject. There was little or no talk about the financial and human cost of fighting two wars, soaring federal deficits or record home foreclosures. McCain finally acknowledged Americans' financial worries Thursday night and declared, "Let me offer an advance warning to the old, big-spending, do-nothing, me-first-country-second Washington crowd: Change is coming."
But his agenda promises only more of the same: tax cuts for the wealthy that the nation cannot afford, an aggressive foreign policy that cannot be sustained and an energy policy short on vision and long on oil drilling that would threaten Florida and provide no near-term relief.
Holding that losing hand, Republicans dealt themselves new cards from a very old deck. Instead of emphasizing experience, the Arizona senator who has been in Washington for more than 25 years tried to hijack Democrat Barack Obama's pitch for change. But there was no innovative thinking in his laundry list of the usual conservative proposals, from school choice to trickle-down economics to market-based health care changes that will not make medical treatment more available or affordable. There was no clear assessment of America's challenges abroad in the routine scare tactics about the dangers of terrorism and Russia's aggressiveness. And the convention turned back to the dated, tired GOP playbook of attacking abortion rights, the media, intellectuals, government, activist judges and the Washington elite.
Of course, McCain stole the spotlight from Obama by making a stunning choice for his running mate, Alaska Gov. Sarah Palin. In her national debut, Palin demonstrated she can deliver a speech well and sharply attack opponents with cutting sarcasm. But her record is uncomfortably thin, and what there is indicates that her views on banning abortion and drilling in environmentally sensitive areas are more radical than McCain's. In just a week of public scrutiny, voters also already have learned that she was for the "bridge to nowhere'' in Alaska before she was against it when it was essentially dead. She also was pretty successful at getting the sort of congressional earmarks that McCain vows to end.
But the real issue is not Palin; it is McCain's judgment. The candidate who would be the oldest first-term president chose a running mate he barely knows who is not prepared to be president. There were far more qualified men and women available. This appears to be a last-minute political calculation based more on gut instinct than thoughtful deliberation. It is aimed at shoring up support among conservatives (which appears to be working) and stealing away disenchanted women voters upset that Sen. Hillary Clinton is not on the Democratic ticket (which won't work if they spend 30 seconds looking at the differences in policy positions).
This was one unusual Republican convention, delayed by a hurricane and marked by a missing incumbent president and Palin's introduction. If the Democrats wrapped the considerable failings of the Bush administration around McCain last week, the Republicans worked just as hard this week to wiggle out of them. Bush became the first president not to attend his party's convention since President Johnson in 1968, and he wasn't heard from again after his brief video Tuesday night in which he declared McCain more than able to handle the "angry left.''
Sen. Joe Lieberman of Connecticut, the Democrats' vice presidential nominee in 2000, made an odd pitch for McCain by noting some of President Clinton's accomplishments working with Republicans on reforming welfare and creating a budget surplus. Judging by the tepid applause, no wonder McCain was discouraged by Republican insiders from picking Lieberman as his running mate. But the most over-the-top warm-up act had to be from the old actor, former senator and failed presidential candidate, Fred Thompson. His performance was Spiro Agnew-like as he waved his arms and defended Palin and her "small-town values'' against the attacks of "media big shots.''
As many others did this week, McCain emphasized his personal story again Thursday night and referred to the years he spent as a prisoner of war in Vietnam. He is an American hero, and no one questions his patriotism. But this election is not just about personal histories. It is about the future, and which candidate has the innovative ideas and the leadership skills to steer this country in a new direction.
Republicans changed the subject this week, and it reinvigorated McCain's campaign. But the election will not be decided by the partisan Democrats who gathered last week in Denver or the partisan Republicans who spent this week in St. Paul. It will be decided as usual by the voters in the middle, and they will demand to hear more in the next two months about real issues.