McCain’s Failed Final Gambit

It’s “Meet the Press,” Part Two. Last week, General Colin Powell endorsed Barack Obama’s presidential bid. This week, Senator McCain was given equal time. What were announced were the final gambits of a failing campaign, and a somewhat sad-making demonstration of why they will fail.

First, he had to deal with the Palin nomination, something which is clearly hurting him among the centrists and independent voters he will need in large numbers to win. His expression of confidence in her credentials echoes precisely what I worried about immediately after the vice-presidential debate. “She has more executive experience than Senator Biden does,” McCain quipped. Note the term: executive. By that same logic, Sarah Palin is more qualified to be president than is Senator McCain himself. And what the Senator fails to say is that, for all her claims to maverick credentials and the unique perspective of a “hockey mom” with which she will “clean up Washington DC,” she is currently under investigation, not just for an expensive wardrobe, but for the serious abuse of executive power. So this answer is a non-answer.

Second, he had to deal with the Powell nomination itself. He began by saying what he has said before, that while he was disappointed, he is honored to have the endorsement of five previous secretaries of state. He listed four of them, then couldn’t remember the fifth. But he couldn’t let it go. He went back to the beginning, tried again, got stuck. He seemed old, somewhat befuddled, clearly tired. Later, in the middle of a follow-up question, McCain suddenly remembered the elusive fifth name; “George Schultz!” be blurted out. Then he offered an important parenthetic explanation for why he’d forgotten the name: “I usually start with him.” In other words, none of this is maverick stuff, obviously; nothing is at this stage of a campaign, You have memorized the lines you keep repeating; there’s no getting off script now, even if the script isn’t winning for you.

Which brings me to the third and most distressing point. Tom Brokaw played a videotape of Rush Limbaugh’s semi-tirade about the Powell nomination last week. With hands cupping his mouth, Limbaugh actually shouted several times into the microphone: “It’s all about race, all about race!”

McCain, asked to respond to that, said that he was disappointed by General Powell’s statement, but then repeated his packaged response about the five secretaries of state. Here is where being old, and tired, and not nearly maverick enough to depart from the script is most damning. Senator McCain never expressed “disappointment” with Limbaugh’s remark. Which means, almost by definition, that he did no listen to the reasons Powell gave so eloquently for his decision in the first place: namely, that the Republican Party, as a whole and in this election cycle particularly, has permitted and subtly encouraged precisely such rhetorical excess, and precisely at a time when the nation’s problems demand sobriety, statesmanship, and civic virtue.

And that is how this campaign has been lost, in a failed final gambit that expresses not a single maverick quality, but a monotonous return to deceitful claims of compassionate conservatism at home and sensible security measures abroad.