John McCain's Night

John McCain’s friends and GOP operatives had spent much of Thursday trying to lower expectations for Sen. McCain’s nomination acceptance speech in St. Paul last night.  They need not have bothered.  McCain’s oration, especially the second half of the roughly hour-long address, was the most powerful of his career.

McCain’s speech had a definite framework: First addressing voters, making it clear that he understands why people are so hungry for “change” in government, then discussing specific issue areas, from taxes to education to national defense. And in the second half, a far more emotional, personal presentation of his experiences in war, how they shaped him, ending with a truly compelling case for why John McCain is by far the better candidate to be the next President of the United States.

Beginning in front of a giant screen showing a waving American flag, McCain complimented his primary opponents and, likely to the surprise of many political experts, said that he is “grateful to the President of the United States” for his leadership and for keeping us safe from another attack.

McCain said that his wife, Cindy, “is more my inspiration than I am hers”.  He thanked undecided voters for their consideration “and the opportunity to earn your trust.” And although the audience didn’t seem overjoyed with McCain’s magnanimity, he said to Barack Obama, “We are fellow Americans. And that’s an association that means more to me than any other.”

Early in the speech there were several interruptions by hecklers, including a belligerent woman who appeared to be part of Code Pink.  McCain jokingly asked the audience to “ignore the ground noise and static”.

McCain spent a long time talking about his running mate, Alaska Gov. Sarah Palin, complimenting her on the many accomplishments, particularly in cutting spending and fighting corruption, which we’ve heard so much about in the past few days.

And then he launched into the heart of his speech, with the first step being to wrestle the “change” mantra away from Barack Obama:  “Let me just offer an advance warning to the old big-spending, do-nothing, me-first country-second crowd: Change is coming!”

“When we tell you we’re going to stop leaving our country’s problems for some unluckier generation to fix, you can count on it.”

McCain touched repeatedly on the theme of whom politicians work for, and why people are so hungry for different government: “I understand who I work for. I don’t work for a party…a special interest…(or) myself. I work for you.”

He railed against government waste, with a promise we’ve heard from him quite a few times in recent months: “The first big-spending pork-barrel earmark bill that comes across my desk, I will veto it. I will make them famous and you will know their names!”

McCain mentioned the many fights he’s taken on (such as tobacco companies and union bosses), getting tremendous applause when he said “I fought for more troops in Iraq when it wasn’t the popular thing to do.”

Another consistent them was fighting for a cause: “It matters less that you can fight. What you fight for is the real test. I fight for Americans. I fight for you.”

In one of the most intense moments of the evening, McCain showed a band on his wrist and described how it was the bracelet of a soldier from New Hampshire who died in Iraq. McCain said he thinks of that soldier every day and it inspires him to do everything he can to keep the country safe to honor the sacrifice made by all our fighting men and women.

Again returning to showing voters that he understands why government is so unpopular, including pointing a particular finger at the GOP, McCain said repeatedly “We lost their trust,” with several reasons, not least of which was “when we valued our power over principles.”

“The party of Lincoln, Roosevelt, and Reagan is going to get back to basics.”

The centerpiece of the issues part of McCain’s speech came in a few very important minutes laying out what “we believe”:

“We believe in low taxes, spending discipline, and open markets. We believe in rewarding hard work and risk takers, and letting people keep the fruits of their labor.  We believe in a strong defense, work, faith, service, and a culture of life. Personal responsibility, the rule of law, and judges who dispense justice impartially and do not legislate from the bench.

“Government that doesn’t make your choices for you, but works to make sure you have more choices to make for yourself.”

As McCain continued with his explanation of positions on issues, he added comparison to Barack Obama:

“I will keep taxes low and cut them where I can. My opponent will raise them.  I will open new markets to our goods and services. My opponent will close them.  I will cut government spending.  He will increase it.  My tax cuts will create jobs. His tax increases will eliminate them.  My health care plan will make it easier for more Americans to find and keep good health care insurance. His plan will force small businesses to cut jobs, reduce wages, and force families into a government-run system where a bureaucrat – a bureaucrat! – stands between you and your doctor.”

On taxes, McCain added that he would cut our corporate income tax rate, the world’s second highest, and double the child tax exemption.

From issue to issue, McCain consistently gave a conservative free-market position while making pointed comparisons to Barack Obama’s very different views.

On the modern job market, McCain said “my opponent promises to bring back old jobs by wishing away the global economy.  We’re going to help workers who’ve lost a job that won’t come back find a new one that won’t go away.”

Education was an issue which got far more attention than we’ve seen elsewhere this campaign season, and a remarkably enthusiastic response from the audience. “Education is the civil rights issue of this century…. We need to shake up failed school bureaucracies with competition, and empower parents with choice… Attract and reward good teachers. And help bad teachers find another line of work.  Senator Obama wants our schools to answer to unions and entrenched bureaucrats. I want our schools to answer to parents and students.”  These words brought the loudest applause of the issues section of McCain’s speech.

On the topic of energy, McCain repeated his recent position: “We’re going to stop sending $700 billion a year to countries that don’t like us very much.  We’ll attack the problem on every front. We’ll drill new wells offshore and we’ll drill them now. We’ll build more nuclear power plants and develop clean coal.”  McCain then listed the usual litany of alternative energy ideas we’ll pursue and then chided Sen.Obama’s view that we can achieve our nation’s energy goals without either new drilling or nuclear power.

“It’s an ambitious plan, but Americans are ambitious by nature. It’s time to show the world again how Americans lead.”

And the final issue area McCain covered was national security: “We must see the threats to peace and liberty in our time clearly…. We have dealt a serious blow to al Qaeda…but they will strike us again if they can.  Iran remains the chief state sponsor of terrorism and is on the path to acquiring nuclear weapons.”

And with possibly the most provocative statement on foreign policy that we’ve heard from any candidate, McCain asserted that “Russia’s leaders, rich with oil and corrupt with power, have rejected democratic ideals and the obligations of a responsible power. They invaded a small Democratic neighbor to gain more control over the world’s oil supplies, intimidate other neighbors, and further their ambitions of reassembling the Russian empire.  The brave people of Georgia need our solidarity and our prayers.”

“We face many dangerous threats in this dangerous world. But I’m not afraid of them. I’m prepared for them.”

Although McCain did not mention Obama in the national security section of his speech, the contrast could not have been clearer.  It was implicitly impossible to imagine Barack Obama saying (or even understanding) most of these things, not least because of Obama’s naïve multiple reactions to events in Georgia just a few weeks ago.

McCain used the subject of a dangerous world to move into the last section of his speech, the part which most people will likely remember all the way through the time when they have to mark a ballot.  It was a remarkable psychological self-examination, one which could not have helped but move all but the most jaded or most partisan Democratic listeners.

“I hate war. It’s terrible…beyond imagination…. I’m running for President to keep the country I love safe and prevent other families from risking their loved ones in war the way my family has.”

McCain returned briefly to the idea of change and his credentials to bring that change, including a message of bipartisanship far more believable than Obama’s record of being anything but bipartisan: “We have to catch up to history. We have to change the way we do business in Washington…  I have that record and the scars to prove it. Senator Obama does not.  Let’s use the best ideas from both sides.  I’ll ask Democrats and Independents to serve with me…  Let’s share the credit.  My administration will set a new standard in transparency and accountability.”

McCain then recounted the truly intense story of his capture and torture in North Vietnam, including being down to 100 pounds and unable to feed himself.  He described how other prisoners saved his life, and then gave some of the most moving words ever spoken by a politician.

“I fell in love with my country when I was a prisoner in someone else’s.  I loved it because it was not just a place, but an idea, a cause worth fighting for. I was never the same again.  I wasn’t my own man anymore. I was my country’s.  My country saved me and I can not forget it…I will fight for her as long as I draw breath, so help me God.”

My wife, a new American citizen, said she was nearly moved to tears, and the crowd in Minnesota clearly felt the same way.

And even though many people figured that John McCain could never bring a crowd to the level of intensity and excitement that Obama had created in front of his faux-Greek pillars in Denver, the last couple minutes of McCain’s acceptance speech had him nearly yelling over a wildly cheering crowd: “Fight with me! Fight with me!  Stand up! Stand up! Stand up and fight!”

John McCain had a nearly impossible act to follow after Wednesday’s back-to-back home runs by Rudy Giuliani and Sarah Palin, but he truly shined on Thursday evening. His speech was intense, principled, patriotic, and, despite all the unnecessary expectations management by Republicans earlier in the day, truly exciting and compelling.  I

There was not a moment during the speech when McCain’s age occurred to me.  I said to my wife while watching the balloons drop to the Heart song “Barracuda”, in honor of Sarah Palin’s nickname, “It makes one wonder how anybody could actually vote for Barack Obama.” And my wife, hardly a partisan of any sort, completely agreed.