Most Americans already know quite a bit about John McCain. They even know enough not to expect that much from his speeches, so last night’s lack of fireworks shouldn’t matter too much. McCain already has a very strong personal story – his character was tested as a Vietnam POW, he’s spent his entire adult life serving his country, he’s a maverick. He does very well at small scale ‘town hall’ meetings, and the rejigged stafe for his acceptance speech jutted out and was set quite low into the crowd to try to maximise that effect. But ultimately the speech didn’t add anything new to the race. Sarah Palin’s speech did – it proved she was no Dan Quayle, and, as this poll confirms, the general theory is that she has energised the Republican base (whilst repulsing the Democratic one). But McCain has nothing new to give.
That is of course his electoral weakness. His opponent, Barack Obama, has new in spades – he is the most novel of candidates in this most novel of election years. So what McCain has to do is keep emphasising his stolidness – the safety of trusting reform to an incrementalist – and hope that the American public get scared by Obama’s newness, rather than inspired by it. Obama’s task is much more active: he has to convince the electorate that, however well they know McCain, novelty is exactly what America needs.
McCain did enough last night to remain a ‘known known’, to quote Donald Rumsfeld, whilst distancing himself from the deeply unpopular administration of which Rumsfeld was once a member. Obama will find it harder now that Bush and Cheney did not appear in person at the Republican National Convention, and all that country first party second stuff has creeped into our unconscious, to lift himself by chaining McCain to Bush. (Though he will keep on doing so.) Now the real fight between the two of them begins.
You may have noticed I get fixated on the horserace nature of election campaigns. This is mostly because, on policy, I’m so clearly decided. McCain, and particularly Palin, are anethema to me. Alas, that doesn’t stop me admiring what has so far been an extremely canny underdog’s campaign. Going into the final eight weeks, McCain has somehow pulled even with the junior senator from Illinois. Obama keeps saying that the election isn’t about him, but the voters. In fact, it’s practically a referendum on him. Without risking an accusation of hubris, the ball’s now in his court … it seems to me that he needs to hit it back with a strong backhand to McCain which states unequivocally why Americans don’t need the guy they’ve always known.