Red Meat Gone, Green Backdrop Stays

So, the Crystal Ball was right and the Crystal Ball was wrong. Yes, John McCain delivered a much more moderate message. But he also appeared, once again, against a green background for the first few minutes of the speech. In fact, he even added a stunningly bright, blue background as the video screen cycled through a series of pictures, almost all with solid green or blue sections immediately behind McCain. Perhaps the image consultants just think green is his color.

More importantly, hopefully much more, was the content of his speech. At times interrupted by protestors, McCain began with a very stump-speech-sounding opening. Still, it was clearly a general election stump speech, and not the one he used in Republican primaries earlier this year. Looking back over the speech in greater detail is a worthwile endeavor, since it signals the path McCain has charted for the next two months.

As news accounts noted, McCain used the word “conservative”‘ a grand total of zero times. Not once did he mention abortion or gay marriage, nor did he stress his immigration policy. The speech he delivered offered much more in the way of contrast than similarities with the other speakers throughout the week. Among McCain’s boldest moves towards moderation was the critique of the Republican Party, saying “we lost their trust,” after the failure of the 1994 Republican revolution to accomplish much of what they had promised.

Still, it wasn’t just the GOP who was subjected to harsh critique. McCain also zeroed in on Barack Obama, offering a long passage contrasting his positions with those of his opponent. McCain cited his support for lowering taxes, and then added, “My opponent will raise them.” He advocated for opening more avenues to free trade, arguing, “My opponent will close them.” He also contrasted his healthcare plan with Obama’s, saying the Democrat’s plan is one “where a bureaucrat stands between you and your healthcare.”

One of the issues McCain took on most directly was a surprising choice—education. Although he also dedicated sections to tax cuts, energy, and terrorism, he called education “the civil rights issue of this century.” McCain hailed school choice and vouchers programs. The choice of education to receive such marquee billing is especially notable given the Obama campaign’s repeated complaint that no other GOP speakers had addressed the issue at the convention.

In addition to the issues that were mentioned, McCain also sprinkled in a bit of biography. He called war “terrible beyond imagination” and said his goal as president would be to bring about “a stable and enduring peace.” Clearly the idea was to reassure voters who are attracted to Obama’s history of Iraq War opposition from day one. By stressing his own war experience, McCain can show that he truly understands the horrors of war and that he will do everything he can to avoid them.

McCain retold the story of his capture and imprisonment in Vietnam that had become so familiar to convention attendees who had heard it told a dozen different times in a dozen different ways over the past four days. Hearing the anecdotes from the man who lived them is always a powerful experience, and McCain delivered. He also appeared to criticize Obama’s lack of military experience, saying, “I have that record and the scars to prove it. Senator Obama does not.”

Interestingly, it was McCain’s praise of his pick of running mate, Sarah Palin, that drew perhaps the loudest cheers of the evening. This, once again lends credence to the theory that Palin will be the one to fire up the conservative base. McCain, dating back to his 2000 presidential run and perhaps earlier, has been seen as a moderate and a maverick, not a reliably conservative Republican. His speech’s emphasis on change, mentioned ten times throughout the speech, and neglect of traditional social issues showed that McCain is willing to take the middle road and let those around him rally the conservative troops.

In the end, for all of the talk about a “town hall” format, the changes to the stage and setting were barely perceptible. McCain spoke from a podium and read from a teleprompter, giving a speech uninterrupted except by the chants of a few isolated protestors and the applause of an adoring crowd.

McCain delivered a solid speech that struck the proper tone for the occasion. The crowd was energized and emotional, but as the confetti and balloons rained down on the delegates, it conjured up similar images of conventions past. Obama’s unique setting in Invesco Field in front of 80,000 or more devotees will be remembered for years to come. McCain appears to have smaller aspirations; hoping memories of his speech will just last until November.