The great riddle of John McCain has always been that he is a man more about ideals than ideas.
Wars must be won. Country comes first. And who else could transform all the moral ambiguities of America’s bloody Vietnam experience into a symbol for service?
Enticed by his maverick style, Washington’s neoconservatives often see in McCain a blank slate on which to write their ideas. But in 2005, on the gut issue of torture, his ideals famously rebelled against the same White House interrogation policies that the Weekly Standard’s intellects had rationalized.
McCain’s idealism is his great strength — but it can also be a weakness when he becomes cocky, even abusive, about his image and lets judgment slip into anger.
In 2000, his message of reform and service caught fire with voters, fat with economic success but hungry for inspiration after the scandals of Bill Clinton. Today, he faces a very different landscape: troubled markets that put a premium on smarts, not idealism, and an opponent, Barack Obama, whose historic candidacy threatens to steal the music that was all McCain’s eight years ago.
Alone then on his campaign bus in South Carolina — when all the fury of the Republican right was just crashing down — McCain turned to this reporter, whom he knew as a fellow Vietnam veteran, and broke into laughter. “David,” he said, “We have unleashed the dogs of war!”
With real wars now in Iraq and Afghanistan, nothing is so carefree. And the most important battle for this campaign is within McCain himself.
His life story — that of the rebel without a cause who found one in a Hanoi prison — will be central to McCain’s speech Thursday night to the national convention in St. Paul, Minn. And he may well use the occasion to chide his fellow Republicans for losing their compass.
But McCain must also struggle to reconcile his ideals with his own fierce ambition and the policies he espouses, in order to win his party’s wary trust. To get this far and appease conservatives, McCain has embraced ideas that truly morph into values questions that can challenge the very ideals central to his identity.
“This has to be a struggle,” said Bob Kerrey, a fellow Vietnam veteran and former Democratic senator from Nebraska who admires much about McCain. “It’s a gargantuan struggle.”
The next president must address long-postponed budget and tax questions. And the gap between the McCain and Obama tax plans is so large at the high income brackets that it’s very difficult to square the Republican plan with McCain’s call for wartime sacrifice and service.
Last week’s vice presidential selection reflected the same tension. Hemmed in by his party’s politics, McCain went back to being the old “stop-me-if-you-can” Navy combat pilot and tapped Alaska Gov. Sarah Palin, the first woman ever to be on a Republican presidential ticket.
It was the political equivalent of a rollaway and barrel roll. Bold, dangerous, reaching out to disaffected small-town women voters, stealing the spotlight back from Obama but also exposing the 72-year-old McCain to criticism for being too impulsive, even cynical, in risking his ideals and the country’s welfare by elevating a political novice he hardly knew.
McCain’s choice is a reminder, too, of what’s become the central conceit of this year’s contest: that each candidate — himself or Obama — can best lead by changing the politics of Washington.
McCain brings more experience and a proven record of challenging the power establishment. But Obama still remains the newcomer with more potential and intellect, albeit the greater challenge in selling himself to voters.
Saddled by his ties to President Bush and a divided party, McCain must resort to a top-down military command strategy. Almost unilaterally, he imposed Palin — a gutsy mother of five, hunter, grass-roots social conservative and Washington outsider — as his designated symbol of change for his party.
Obama, forever the Chicago community organizer, is more ground-up. He can afford to take a veteran Washington figure like Sen. Joe Biden (D-Del.) as his running mate and still draw an estimated 40 million television viewers to his acceptance speech while transforming a football stadium into a phone bank center.
McCain needs to be McCain to effect change, while Obama told his Denver audience, “This election has never been about me. It’s been about you.”
Either way, it’s a match uniquely American.
McCain is heir to a military legacy going back to the Revolution and the Confederacy. The son and grandson of admirals, a former Navy pilot and prisoner of war in Vietnam, he captures the American West frontier values of toughness and individuality.
Coming into the Republican National Convention, McCain is following a carefully scripted, even canned campaign matching him, The Patriot, against Obama, The Phenom.
“Confidence in oneself and confidence in one’s country are not the same,” McCain told veterans in Phoenix last week. As Gustav tore into the Gulf Coast on Monday, he ordered the convention scaled back and told supporters to drop party labels and put on their “American hats.” When politics returned Tuesday night, it was laced heavily with tributes to his bravery in Vietnam.
To win, McCain bets heavily on two cards: his heart and Obama’s hubris. If the Democrat is judged vain and vacuous, drawing large crowds but not connecting with individual voters, McCain has the opening he needs, if he can be true to himself.
“There are some people who are claiming that I’m different,” he said in an interview with Politico last month aboard his campaign plane. “I’m the same guy. I’m the same guy.”