Mr. McCain’s task is to persuade the American people that electing him will not merely mean more of President Bush’s ideology and incompetence. This is a huge challenge, and his performance at this convention could give us some sense of whether he can rise to it.
Mr. McCain’s week is complicated by Hurricane Gustav, which prompted President Bush and Vice President Dick Cheney to cancel plans to appear in St. Paul on Monday. That will relieve Mr. McCain of having to pay homage to the very man whose shadow he is desperately trying to escape — and the president did the right thing in response to a looming disaster, this time.
But Gustav’s arrival will remind Americans of one of the most shameful chapters of the Bush presidency — its unforgivably uncaring response to Hurricane Katrina, which came to symbolize the incompetence, cronyism and ideological blindness of the Bush administration. These many years later, Mr. Bush has made no effort to keep the promises he made about addressing the deep-rooted poverty and racism laid bare by Katrina.
For Mr. McCain, presuming his convention proceeds as planned, it will do no good to simply throw ideological red meat to the delegates. According to a New York Times/CBS News poll, they sit well to the right of the country and even Republicans as a whole. These delegates have nowhere else to go.
He could do himself good if he makes a serious effort to rekindle the affection of Republican moderates and independents who have admired his personal courage, competitiveness and occasional willingness to buck party orthodoxy and take legislative risks.
The problem, of course, is that beyond a few selected issues, Mr. McCain shares Mr. Bush’s values and opinions. He not only champions the war in Iraq as a strategic necessity, but also lags even the administration in his willingness to set a timetable for withdrawal. Having once opposed Mr. Bush’s tax cuts for the wealthy, he now endorses them. His drill-here, drill-now energy policies seem cut from Dick Cheney’s cloth.
His campaign tactics, too, have been replete with nasty little touches since he turned his operation over to Karl Rove’s acolytes, including sophomoric ads about Mr. Obama’s celebrity, waving the flag of fear by saying Mr. Obama wants to “lose” in Iraq and playing the race card by baselessly accusing Mr. Obama of playing it.
Nobody can argue that politics is a gentlemanly game or that Republicans, in particular, have not profited from bare-knuckle tactics. Still, one yearns for the John McCain who used to pride himself on being above this sort of thing, and who was devastated by Mr. Bush’s sleazy tactics in the 2000 primaries. It is hard to imagine the pre-2008 McCain accusing an opponent of unpatriotic behavior the way he has allowed Mr. Obama’s principled opposition to the war to be portrayed.
There are other aspects of the old McCain that many voters (and this page) would like to see more of, especially the senator who regularly surprised people with innovative legislation on issues not normally associated with his party or its allies.
This pre-2008 John McCain dismayed industrial polluters by proposing to put a price on emissions of global-warming gases like carbon dioxide; irritated his hard-line Senate colleagues by offering (with Edward Kennedy) a bipartisan immigration bill; and angered special interests everywhere by fighting to reform campaign finance and the pork-ridden Army Corps of Engineers.
Simply reviving that old John McCain won’t be enough. He has to offer a detailed explanation of what he means by “victory” in Iraq, and why continuing the Bush tax cuts would not further impoverish the country. But reawakening a bit of the old maverick would do more to win the respect of the American middle than gimmicky proposals for a gas-tax holiday or wild charges about Mr. Obama’s patriotism or slavish fealty to the darker aspects of the Bush presidency.