Not many can boast the presidential bona fides Sen. John McCain carries with him into the final leg of the 2008 campaign. He first had a stint in the U.S. House of Representatives 25 years ago, before moving onto a 20-year career in the U.S. Senate. There, he garnered a reputation for being a free-thinker, sometimes going against the grain of his own Republican Party, and working toward bipartisanship.
This, of course, was after graduating from the Naval Academy and embarking on a 22-year career in the Navy (third generation). That, as we all know, included service in Vietnam, where he endured a horrifying stretch as a prisoner of war. When he returned home, he received such honors as the Silver Star, the Bronze Star and a Purple Heart.
McCain has run for president before, and possesses a wry post-Letterman wit more befitting a 30-something than a septuagenarian. In this age of war and campaigns that thrive on knowing sound bites, McCain could certainly run a campaign with grandiose aspirations and imagery.
Instead, in what was billed as a “2008 Presidential Town Hall Meeting” Thursday night at the Landmark Center in downtown St. Paul, McCain played the humility card.
Little more than two weeks ago, Sen. Barack Obama came to the Xcel Energy Center in the very same city. More than 35,000 people came to see the rising star finally arrive, as 20,000 packed inside to see Obama claim the nomination to be the Democratic candidate for president. The crowd was buzzing and loud, and if the event didn’t quite resemble a rock show, it certainly shared the hype and glitz of a Minnesota Wild playoff game.
McCain’s event, by contrast, drew an invite-only audience of about 200. The requisite pop music playing before the senator’s show – “Right Now” by Van Halen, “Superstition” by Stevie Wonder, “Centerfield” by John Fogerty, “Johnny B. Goode” – was nearly inaudible. The crowd, unlike many of Obama’s, did not break into spontaneous chants. Parking was not an issue in downtown St. Paul.
The vibe was downright somber at times. The event was billed as a gathering of independent voters – the McCain campaign apparently did some robo-calling, found folks were undecided in the presidential race, and invited them to come on down. (Though a survey of guests afterward found that at least more than a handful were Republicans who got tickets from GOP insiders.) The message was clear: There will be no grandstanding, no partisan sideswipes, just a good look at a presidential candidate and an honest discussion about where he’ll take the country, if elected.
Even Gov. Tim Pawlenty, in introducing McCain, exuded the air of a college professor. (The vice presidency did come up, with no proclamations from either Pawlenty of McCain; more on that later.) Pawlenty said he hoped the event would be “informative and instructive,” and that we’d all see that McCain “calls it as he sees it” – a reference not only to the fabled Straight Talk Express, but also a counter to Obama’s arcing oratory.
“He’s going to be a great president,” Pawlenty quietly intoned, “and I present John McCain.”
A low-key stump speech
And with that McCain emerged – gray suit, light gray shirt, orange tie – to modest applause. The candidate immediately invoked his record on campaign finance reform, then lamented the news that his rival had opted out of public money for the race. He quoted an old news story where Obama said he would stick to public dollars.
“Obviously, I’m very disappointed,” McCain said, that Obama “would go back on his word to the American people.” The effect was to draw McCain as an ordinary guy whose modest means will ensure that he will rely on financing from the people, while Obama has gone all greedy and elite on us.
“My friends,” McCain continued in what has become his campaign verbal tic, “the facts speak for themselves. He ought to renew his commitment not to me, but to the American people.”
Got that? You can’t trust Obama.
Then candidate McCain touched on his “three major themes: reform, prosperity and peace.”
As for the first part, McCain drew his first applause line when he railed against “earmark spending” and vowed as president to veto every earmarked bill.
For the second theme, McCain vaguely spoke of economic turnaround, decrying the state of “Social Security, mortgage payments” without offering any plans or solutions.
“People need to stay in their own homes, and remain in their house,” he said. “We need to keep people’s taxes lower. I will keep taxes low.”
That drew applause. Who really wants to pay more taxes?
He became excited at the prospect of “becoming independent of foreign oil,” which also drew a cheer, and moved on to one topic that has made him the enemy of many conservatives: climate change. McCain seems sincere in his interest in the topic; he has talked about it throughout his campaign.
“There are three issues that are the nexus,” he said. “Greenhouse gases … I believe are damaging our planet.” The other two issues related to the environment are “economic recovery” and national security.
On that last front, McCain said that in consuming oil we’re sending money “to countries that don’t like us very much and some of that money ends up in the hands of terrorists.”
It’s a sly shift that is quite likely designed to appeal to moderates who are either nonplussed or somewhat concerned about climate change, while still sticking on the conservative red-meat topic of homeland security and the wars we’ve waged.
Speaking of war – or not, as it were – McCain slid into theme No. 3. Peace.
“Finally, I’d like to talk to you about peace,” he said. “Peace is a precious thing.” He mentioned “two wars” and professed to see good things coming out of both Afghanistan and Iraq, and he stuck to his guns on the issue of higher troop levels on the ground.
“The surge is working and we’re winning in Iraq,” McCain said. “A lot of people don’t want to say that, but we’re winning there.” More applause.
That’s how McCain has played his stance on the war – despite the “100 years” and “Bomb Iran” gaffes: He was never opposed to invading Iraq, he just knew we had the wrong strategy going in. It allows him to distance himself from President Bush while staying on course for a U.S. victory. He said under different circumstances, “I’d say come home immediately,” though it wasn’t clear what those circumstances might be. “If we withdraw like Senator Obama wants to do, there’d be chaos.”
Though somehow the wars became relegated to the back-burner at times during primary season, McCain clearly thinks he can make hay with it now.
“I am confident we are succeeding,” he said. “My friends, we will come home. We will come home. But we will come home in victory, not in defeat.”
A q-and-a session
After 20 minutes, the senator opened the session up to q-and-a time. For nearly an hour, McCain took questions from 16 people. He moved about the audience, set up in a square, passed around the microphone himself at times, and thanked everyone for their questions. In short, he did everything in his power to deflate what has become the iconic imagery of the Obama campaign. And, frankly, it’s not a bad bet.
The first question came from a bearded man in a yarmulke, and it was so gushing that one might have wondered out of the gate if the entire thing was scripted.
“I’ve always admired you,” the man said, adding that he was “a little frustrated at all the misinformation on the Internet” and wanted to learn more about both candidates and McCain’s reputation for bipartisanship. “We’re not getting the real John McCain out there.”
What a softball! McCain’s response hardly matters in the face of a “question” like that. He did, however, indicate that people have “asked me to talk more about my past experiences,” presumably meaning his time at the Hanoi Hilton, but McCain, like many veterans, does not dwell on such matters.
(He did crack a joke early on the topic, noting that his wife, Cindy, was absent Thursday night because she’s in Vietnam volunteering for Operation Smile. “I don’t know if she’ll get a chance to see my old residence,” he said, laughing.)
The second question came from a woman whose son has a “chronic disease” and the family’s health insurance can’t keep up with the bills. McCain looked positively morose, but offered nothing concrete on health care, other than saying to people who want socialized medicine, “I suggest you go to Canada or England.”
Then, strangely, he turned to Pawlenty, and let him take a swing at laying out a health care plan. The best the governor could do was claim that Minnesota “has the lowest rate of uninsured in the country” before mumbling something about the plan we have in Minnesota.
Was that a test or was it planned? Did Pawlenty pass the audition?
More questions came, to varying degrees of difficulty, which is to say they weren’t difficult at all. Energy resources (all for ’em!), immigrants (for some of ’em!), taxes (totally against ’em!) were all touched upon, in a manner that allowed McCain to regurgitate his stump without seeming like he was stumping at all. It’s a smart tactic, putting McCain out there to vaguely answer some general topic questions so that he doesn’t look like he’s lecturing. More importantly, the campaign obviously knows that any attempts to reach the rhetorical heights of Obama would likely fall short.
Last question was from David Story, a 45-year-old insurance agent from Farmington, Minn.
“I think Governor Pawlenty would make an excellent vice president,” he said, to laughter. “What do you think are his chances?”
“This meeting is adjourned,” McCain jokingly retorted, putting Pawlenty in the next generation of leadership for the Republicans, without answering the question. “He has a place in the future of the country as well as the Republican Party. The first is more important.”
A change since Iowa?
A recent Rolling Stone story by Matt Taibbi absolutely scalds McCain for tacking hard right, and exploiting the politics of fear that has become one MO of the Republican Party. But that McCain was not seen Thursday, and his moderate, almost quiet, tone echoed the demeanor he displayed in December in Iowa when he was running sixth – sixth! – in some polls prior to the state’s caucuses.
One stop at the Mason City airport Dec. 27 made it clear that McCain was surging himself: People carried “Mac is back” signs, and it didn’t at all seem far-fetched that he would eventually secure his party’s nomination.
There, McCain launched right into the climate change topic, much like he did Thursday night in St. Paul. There were more than a few of the skeptics in the crowd of 500, but McCain pressed on. He also refused to denounce illegal immigration in its entirety, even though most in the room were flaming mad about the issue. (He used his same “this meeting is adjourned” line when someone asked about it.) And he defended the surge, saying all along that he didn’t oppose the war, but the way it was waged.
In other words, that campaign stop six months ago – also in the “town hall” setting – was very similar to McCain’s appearance Thursday night. (Although it must be said that Iowans ask much tougher questions than Minnesotans.) And it’s the perfect element for McCain.
The night Obama was at the Xcel, McCain foolishly tried to pre-empt what was clearly the Illinois senator’s night. He gave a speech earlier in the evening from New Orleans where he came off stiff, angry and old. Cable news stations carried it live before Obama’s triumphant speech, and McCain got trounced. By contrast, Thursday McCain seemed sharp, humble and human, which is probably the best way to run against Obama.
At one point, McCain trumped up his favorite strength, which is talking bluntly and honestly. He said that he told voters in Iowa, Michigan and South Carolina some hard truths about their states.
“I lost Iowa, I lost Michigan, but I won South Carolina,” McCain said, in a self-deprecating laugh. “I bat .333, which is good for baseball, but not so good for primaries.”
Will it be good enough come November?
G.R. Anderson Jr., a former reporter and senior editor for City Pages, covers politics, the state Capitol and issues related to public safety.