ST. PAUL — Last week in Denver, Democrats bet that dissatisfaction with President Bush is so great, that merely tying his policies to John McCain will be enough to win back the White House come November. They didn’t bother making much of a case for why Barack Obama, specifically, should be president.
Last night, Republicans kicked off their convention in earnest, with speeches by Fred Thompson and Joe Lieberman that argued that accomplishments and life experiences are crucial preparation for becoming president, and McCain has them in spades.
Thompson, showing more fire than he ever did as a presidential candidate, played two roles — the narrator of McCain’s life story, and an attack dog with his sights set on Obama.
The former Tennessee Senator framed McCain’s biography as a test of his character, portraying him as a man who always made the difficult choice, bound by honor and his love of country.
After McCain escaped death in a fire on the deck of the USS Forrestal that killed 134 of his fellow crew members, Thompson recounted, he could have returned home, but volunteered to fly missions for another ship that was undermanned because it had already lost so many men in combat. After McCain was shot down with broken bones and beaten by an angry mob, he had the chance to trade medical treatment for information, but he refused, as he did when he was offered early release.
During two years of solitary confinement, McCain was stuck in a hot North Vietnamese prison cell and could only see the outside world through a crack in the door.
“We hear a lot of talk about hope,” Thompson said in a clear reference to Obama. “John McCain knows about hope. That’s all he had to survive on.”
This was one of several times in which Thompson contrasted Obama’s words with McCain’s deeds.
After describing McCain’s politically risky support for the surge in Iraq as well as his opposition to President Reagan’s decision to send U.S. Marines into Lebanon in 1983, Thompson said, “My friends … that is character you can believe in.”
And while Obama has made it a point to argue that his presidency would improve America’s reputation abroad, Thompson said of McCain, “The respect he is given around the world is not because of a teleprompter speech designed to appeal to American critics abroad, but because of decades of clearly demonstrated character and statesmanship.”
After Thompson’s speech delivered a lot of red meat to the partisan crowd, Sen. Joe Lieberman, who just eight years ago was the Democratic Party’s nominee for vice president, praised McCain as somebody who genuinely reached across party lines, something that Obama likes to talk about.
“Both presidential candidates this year talk about changing the culture of Washington, about breaking through the partisan gridlock and special interests that are poisoning our politics,” Lieberman said. “But only one of them has actually done it…. And that leader is John McCain.”
In his most pointed criticism of this year’s Democratic nominee, he made the central argument for McCain.
“Sen. Obama is a gifted and eloquent young man who can do great things for our country in the years ahead,” Lieberman said. “But eloquence is no substitute for a record — not in these tough times.”
Lieberman also fought back against attempts to tie McCain to President Bush.
“My Democratic friends know all about John’s record of independence and accomplishment,” he said. “Maybe that’s why some of them are spending so much time and so much money trying to convince voters that John McCain is someone else. I’m here, as a Democrat myself, to tell you: Don’t be fooled. God only made one John McCain, and he is his own man.”
With polls showing that significantly more Americans would vote for a generic Democrat over a generic Republican, the campaign strategies for each party’s nominee are now becoming clear.
If last week’s convention did anything (the attacks on Bush’s policies, the populist economic rhetoric, the Clinton emphasis on party unity), it helped make Obama into a generic Democrat, and his recent bump in the polls reflects that. This week, Republicans will present McCain as a man with a life story so compelling, and a record of bipartisanship so extensive, that he transcends any party label.
Philip Klein is a reporter for The American Spectator.