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Outside editorial: The paradox of John McCain

Posted: Tuesday, September 02, 2008

Last week, the Democrats faced the task of presenting a relative newcomer to politics as their nominee for president. This week, the Republicans face a different challenge, one greatly complicated now by the anticipated arrival of Hurricane Gustav on the Gulf Coast.

After a long career of public service, and on his second presidential campaign, John McCain is a familiar figure to many Americans. But where he would lead the nation is less clear to many, and his vice presidential selection last week didn't help.

Out of respect for potential hurricane victims in Mississippi, Louisiana or Texas, Republicans may nominate McCain without the usual fanfare of a party convention - and without nearly as much public attention as Barack Obama attracted last week. That only heightens the difficulty of the task McCain faces: to offer a vivid picture of why he wants to be president and what he would hope to accomplish.

McCain's journey to this nomination in many ways encapsulated his legend as a fighter, maverick and man of principle. Last summer, with his campaign broke and his chances written down to zero by the experts, McCain threw away the standard playbook - and much of his staff - and appealed directly to the people of New Hampshire in a grass-roots, no-frills campaign. Though the war in Iraq was deeply unpopular, he refused to trim his conviction that America should stick with it.

As opponents reversed long-held positions to appeal in ugly ways to anti-immigrant sentiment, McCain insisted on his more humane approach. And against considerable odds, he outlasted the field.

In the half year since clinching, however, McCain has failed to offer a fully coherent case for his presidential bid. Reformer, fiscal hawk, outsider, insider, values candidate, wartime leader - he has tried on each of these. He has offered specific proposals - corporate tax cuts, offshore drilling, League of Democracies - but has yet to assemble them into a framework of priorities. Having at one time opposed President Bush's tax cuts in part because of their unfairness, McCain doubled down on them, with scant concern for inequality or fiscal responsibility.

His last-minute choice of a woman he barely knows to be his running mate underscored concerns about his impulsiveness, and her utter lack of experience in world affairs undermined his claimed seriousness about national security.

One reason for the incoherence undoubtedly is that McCain has the misfortune to share party membership with a deeply unpopular incumbent. Asserting independence without offending the dwindling band of Bush's loyalists hasn't been easy. But at the convention, McCain has to draw a line. Does he offer "four more years," as the Democrats allege? If not, how will he change course?

Over the course of his career, McCain has broken with his party and even risked his political future in the service of principle. Campaign finance, climate change, immigration, the Iraq war surge, opposition to torture - given how few contemporary politicians can cite even one such occasion of risk-taking, McCain's list has to win admiration.

But to win votes in November, being admirable is not enough. McCain has to convince Americans that he has a vision of where he wants to lead the country, and the judgment and character to do so.



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