Anyone who doubts the possibility of a landslide victory for Barack Obama in November probably didn’t see John McCain on the stump this week.
The problem with Mr. McCain’s appearances in Maine and New Hampshire on Monday and Tuesday was not merely that the crowds he attracted were smaller or less ardent than those who customarily flock to see Mr. Obama – though they were. Nor was it that asserting his opponent would “lose a war in order to win a political campaign” smacked of frustration – though it did.
The more fundamental weakness was Mr. McCain’s failure to answer a very basic question: Why does he want to be president? His stump speech provided no compelling rationale for his candidacy and no real road map for where he wants to lead the nation.
Mr. McCain’s past is indisputably heroic. But, when it comes to the future, he seems as bereft of “the vision thing” as George H. W. Bush, who hosted a fund-raiser for him during his swing through the Pine Tree State.
Mr. McCain’s speech at the Maine Military Museum in South Portland on Monday was a striking case in point. Given the setting, it was inevitable – and right – that he would pay homage to his fellow veterans and refer to his experiences as a prisoner of war in North Vietnam. But civilians far outnumbered past or present members of the military at the event, and to the extent that any of them were undecided voters, Mr. McCain made a poor job of explaining why they should choose him.
He rushed through his speech, stomping on his own applause lines and, as is his wont, mangling some remarks. His opening reference to “this balmy Arizona day” was presumably a joke, but it almost came off as a slip of the tongue. More awkward was his blunder as he sought to work up the crowd on the issue of energy:
”I will end this dependence on foreign oil!” Mr. McCain proclaimed. “I will depend it! Uh, I will end it.”
He shrugged half-apologetically.
“I will end it? I have a plan to end it.”
Mr. McCain’s speech was marked not just by the minor errors it contained but by the necessities it lacked. The Republican threw a couple of perfunctory jabs in Mr. Obama’s direction, but no sustained critique bound them together. The closest he came to a rallying cry was a promise that “as president of the United States, I will always, always put my country first.”
This is all well and good. But if patriotism alone were enough to make a great president, there would be thousands of worthy contenders. Not even Mr. McCain himself seems clear about what else he is bringing to the table.
This is an especially dangerous vulnerability against an opponent like Mr. Obama. The Democrat’s lofty rhetoric attracts its share of mockery, but his intentions are always clear. His pledges to summon change and heal partisan and racial divisions are known to every American who is even halfway politically engaged.
Mr. McCain’s stumble-filled presentation, by contrast, has become a distraction that endangers one of his supposed advantages over Mr. Obama. The perception that the Republican is a seasoned foreign policy expert and Mr. Obama a callow pretender is hard to maintain as the Democrat nimbly traverses the treacherous territory of Middle Eastern politics and Mr. McCain talks – yet again this week – about “Czechoslovakia” rather than the Czech Republic.
Mr. McCain still has his strengths, including the simple fact that he is a hard man to dislike. One of his most impressive moments came during an audience question-and-answer session in Rochester, N.H. When an antiwar female audience member spoke trenchantly and at length, Mr. McCain began by hushing those in the crowd who had begun to heckle her, answered her respectfully and then asked volunteers to give the microphone back to her so she could respond to his comments. Such an attitude seems far removed from the hectoring stance commonly adopted by the current administration.
And anyway, concerns about Mr. McCain’s shortcomings evidently do not weigh heavy on the minds of voters like Sue Brunner of Topsham, Maine. Ms. Brunner, a veteran and homemaker, attended the Republican’s South Portland event. When I asked her why she was supporting Mr. McCain, she responded that Mr. Obama was “evil” and added that she was worried by “his Muslim connections.”
But if Mr. McCain is to have any chance of drawing support from unattached voters who aren’t quite as committed in their loathing for Mr. Obama, he will need to call on a certain level of political skill. Among other things, he will need to demonstrate the ability to craft a compelling message and communicate it with clarity and power.
On the evidence of the past few days, Mr. McCain will have trouble doing so.