I caught some of her speech today live on CNN at a McCain-Palin rally in Colorado Springs, and she was droning on about John McCain in the Hanoi Hilton, using the exact same lines we’ve heard from the convention. She’s got to do better than that. How about talking less about who y’all are — which is impressive, and legitimately part of your pitch — and more about what y’all are going to do?
Well, yes, but what would they say after the first five minutes were up? With the exception of a few nods to job retraining and school choice, and, of course, drilling and solidarity with Georgia, McCain’s own speech was blessedly free of talking about anything remotely resembling an agenda. When she wasn’t making a fool of herself warning against the Great Venezuelan Embargo, Palin was, perhaps more understandably, similarly bereft of policy ideas in her speech. Oh, but I believe she was in favor of drilling. I did get that impression. When the theme of the convention seems to have been, “Drill, baby, drill,” which is an energy policy in exactly the same way that, “Tax, baby, tax” is a fiscal policy (i.e., it isn’t), slogans are obviously all that the party has left. Even if you think that increasing oil exploration and supply through more offshore drilling makes sense, you cannot really take these people seriously. After months of mocking Obamaphiles for their ridiculous catchphrases and cultish chants, the Republicans have finally found the chants they can believe in. The real trouble is that the people on the ticket are not saying much more than the chanting crowds.
However, that’s been the m.o. of the McCain campaign since last year: biography politics together with sloganeering and rote talking points instead of policy substance. This was more or less how McCain’s primary campaign went: “Surge! Victory! Surge, Earmarks Are Bad, Surge, I Was a POW, Victory, Tax Cuts, Surge, Cause Greater Than Oneself, Surge!” Since securing the nomination, he has not given many major policy addresses. One of the few that he did give involved laying out his mad confrontational foreign policy vision, which has now boiled down to vilifying Russia and sabre-rattling against Iran. A candidacy built almost entirely on the appeal of biography and character is not going to turn into a campaign that lays out a serious policy agenda. As I have noted before, the danger is that the less wonkish, less policy-oriented candidate is unfortunately the person who wins presidential elections. It is frustrating for the journalists, pundits and bloggers who follow the campaigns, but the reason why the McCain campaign’s focus is inordinately on biography is that the candidate who sells himself on his biography will usually prevail over the wonk. It worked for Obama against Clinton, and it has already worked for McCain once this year. However, in a race against Obama I’m not sure that the McCain/Palin combination of biographies will be enough.
When McCain doesn’t know much about policy, and the VP nominee has to be brought up to speed to be on McCain’s level of policy ignorance, their speechwriters aren’t going to burden them with a lot of specific details, since these might prompt questions and require the candidates to understand what they just said. When McCain does not understand that his own preferred policy of cap-and-trade involves mandatory restrictions on emissions, can’t keep straight which forces Iran is supposed to be backing inside Iraq and admits that he knows little about economics, first among the many other subjects about which he knows little, what is he going to talk about? He will talk about being held captive and he will talk about reform–beautiful, nebulous, undefined reform. Not to mention drilling.