By Robin Masters
There are certain elements common to every convention speech. There’s the inspirational element: rally the troops, rally the nation. There’s the presidential element: look and act like someone who could actually inhabit the Oval Office. Then there’s the attack element: go after the other side.
It’s that third part that presents a problem for Senator John McCain. Everyone does it, and if they do it well, the attacks work without ever being characterized or remembered as attacks. We’ve all heard that JFK directed his speechwriters not to attack the Eisenhower administration in his inaugural address. But he had no such compunctions six months earlier at the Democratic Convention, when he called his opponent Richard Nixon “a man who has spoken or voted on every known side of every known issue,” referred to the Eisenhower administration as “eight years of drugged and fitful sleep,” and claimed that “our task is not merely one of itemizing Republican failures” before going on to do precisely that.
Ronald Reagan, a man remembered by most for his positive vision of "morning in America," did not hesitate at the 1980 convention to blame Democrats for the “unprecedented calamity which has befallen us,” accusing the Carter administration of “make-believe, self-deceit and—above all—transparent hypocrisy.”
These were not light jabs: they were full-throated offensives, launched in front of national television audiences. But no one remembers Presidents Kennedy and Reagan as, in today’s parlance, "negative" campaigners. They got away with it. The question is, can John McCain?
It will not be easy. McCain has much working against him. He is behind in the polls. His party is out of favor with the public. And he’s up against an opponent who is a genuine political phenomenon. It’s one thing when the Straight Talk Express is taking on Washington corruption, which everyone is against (or, at least, which everyone says they’re against). It’s another when he goes after a young, vigorous opponent who, like Kennedy and Reagan, somehow always manages to couch his own attacks in such a way that no one thinks they’re actually attacks.
So what must he do? He could try to emulate Kennedy, Reagan, and yes, Obama. He could try to hide his attacks in soaring rhetoric. He could try to make it seem like they’re not attacks at all.
He could, and he might. But he shouldn’t, for two reasons. First, it simply is not who John McCain is, and if he tries it, he risks losing the position in our political discourse that has thus far sustained his career on the national stage: that of the blunt truth-teller.
Second, this campaign is not and will not be about John McCain. It’s about Barack Obama. If Obama can convince the American people that he is ready for the White House, he will win. If his storyline is the one that succeeds, McCain cannot compete. The American people already know John McCain, and they like him well enough. There is no point in him trying to make them like him more. Rather, he needs to make sure they like Barack Obama less.
Can he do it? Can he—or anyone—attack Obama without being punished for it by the voters? McCain has on occasion displayed a dry sense of humor that can offer a perfect counterpoint to Obama’s high-flying oratory. He has shown a down-to-earth earnestness that is entirely different from Obama’s occasionally inflated sense of purpose. He may in fact be able to prick Obama’s balloon enough to bring him down to earth. It will not be easy. But it is crucial to his hopes for victory.
Masters is a former Bush Administration speechwriter
© 2008 Gotham Ghostwriters, All rights reserved.