By Matthew Dallek
I would look for three things from John McCain in his acceptance speech this week. First, he must decide how vicious he will be in attacking his rival Barack Obama. McCain has already staked much of his campaign on trashing Obama and making him unelectable. When he takes the stage in St. Paul, Americans should watch to guage whether McCain has truly embraced that strategy and made it his own--or simply let his aides cut ads that attempt to destroy their opponent as un-American and too weak to lead.
Second, McCain must somehow pay tribute to a deeply unpopular incumbent president. After all, the hall will be filled with George W. Bush's diehard defenders. A lot of McCain's senior aides hail from Bush's camp, and McCain badly needs to fire up the Republican activists who believe that Bush has been a strong commander-in-chief and a solid steward of the nation's economic future.
Third, perhaps most importantly, McCain needs to walk a fine line: while championing many of Bush's policies (from tax cuts to Iraq to energy) in his convention address, he also needs to find a way to reinforce his image as a political maverick. This will not be an easy thing for him to do. While the John McCain of 2000 had a true claim to the "maverick" title, this year's incarnation not only has run a relentlessly shrill anti-Obama campaign; he has also embraced Bush's signature policies, and most tellingly, McCain has abandoned many of his positions that once had put him at odds with his own party and made him a maverick.
Instead of opposing Bush's tax cuts for the wealthiest Americans, McCain has now made tax cuts the centerpiece of his economic agenda. Instead of criticizing the administration's inept handling of the war in Iraq as he once did, McCain has praised the president's wartime leadership and hailed the surge for helping achieve victory in Iraq. And rather than denounce the intense partisan divide and acidic rhetoric in American politics, McCain has taken Bush-style attacks to a whole new decibel level, even questioning Barack Obama's loyalty to the United States.
This is the fundamental contradiction in McCain's presidential candidacy -- he is simultaneously trying to assert his maverick bona fides while wrapping himself in President Bush's controversial and relatively unpopular policies. How McCain addresses, and whether he can overcome, that contradiction is probably the central challenge he faces in his all-important convention acceptance address. It will go a long way towards determining who becomes the next president.
Dallek, a former Capitol Hill speechwriter, is the author of The Right Moment: Ronald Reagan's First Victory and the Decisive Turning Point in American Politics
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