David Brooks: A Glimpse of the New

The central drama of the convention was the struggle by reform Republicans to break through the pull of old habits and create something new.

Can John McCain distance himself enough from the ruling Republicans to be convincing about reform?
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Can John McCain distance himself enough from the ruling Republicans to be convincing about reform?

Political parties usually reform in the wilderness. They suffer some crushing defeat, the old guard is discredited and the pain compels turnover and change. John McCain is trying to reform the Republican Party before a presidential defeat, with the old guard still around, and with a party base that still hasn’t accepted the need to transform. The central drama of this week’s convention was the struggle by reform Republicans to break through the gravitational pull of old habits and create something new.

Before the convention, some McCain aides wanted to sunder the links to the past in one bold stroke: Name Joe Lieberman as the vice presidential nominee, promise to serve only one term, vow to take a hiatus from partisanship and work by compromise to get things done. That proved to be a leap too far.

So McCain was pulled back. But he refused to stay there and pressed ahead by picking Sarah Palin. At first, this seemed like the fresh break he needed. Her career in Alaska has been nibbled on the edges, but the key fact is this: When the testing time came, she quit her government job, put her career on the line and took on the corrupt establishment of her own party.

But again, the forces of the past pulled McCain back. Parts of the press pack elevated Bristol Palin’s pregnancy. A controversy over human reproduction brought back the old culture wars and the mommy wars. Battle lines formed, as in the days of Anita Hill and Clarence Thomas, and everyone took their pre-assigned roles.

Millions declared themselves qualified to judge her a bad mother, while others held her up as the model of evangelical virtue. And, of course, the whole thing became enmeshed in the clichés of red-blue: the supposed conflict between the condescending media elites and the gun-owning trailer trash, between abortion-rights urban women with one kid and anti-abortion rural women with five.

For 36 hours, the gravitational pull of past resentments dominated the media-culture war complex. And from the convention podium the past and the future fought to a draw. On the one hand, Joe Lieberman went up there and praised Bill Clinton, giving a glimpse of what a less partisan political future might look like. On the other, there was Mitt Romney, who delivered a cynical, extreme caricature of old-line Republicanism.

The convention thus sat on a knife-edge. And then Palin walked onstage. She gave a tough vice presidential speech, with maybe a few more jabs than necessary. Still it was stupendous to see a young woman emerge from nowhere to give a smart and assertive speech.

And what was most impressive was her speech’s freshness. Her words flowed directly from her life experience, her poise and mannerisms from her town and its conversations. She left behind most of the standard tropes of Republican rhetoric (compare her text to the others) and skated over abortion and the social issues. There wasn’t even any tired, old Reagan nostalgia.

Instead, her language resonated more of supermarket aisle than the megachurch pulpit. More than the men on the tickets, she embodies the spirit of the moment: impatient, fed up, tough-minded, but ironical. Even in attack, she projected the cheerfulness of someone confident about the future.

In those 40 minutes, the forces of reform Republicanism took control, at least for a time. Republicans started talking about Palin, Bobby Jindal and a brighter future for their party.

In his own speech on Thursday, McCain showed that he is not naturally the smoothest of speakers. He did not have an over-arching story to describe how the world has changed in the 21st century and how government must adapt.

He did not lay out a new doctrine to give shape to his administration. Bill Clinton had a new Democratic agenda to describe how his party would evolve, and in 2000, George W. Bush had compassionate conservatism. McCain had nothing like that. He did not offer as transformational a domestic policy agenda as one would have liked.

But he described traditional conservatism-plus: low taxes and free markets with some activism built on top; compensating workers for lost wages when plants close; a grand national project for energy independence. Through it all, he communicated his burning indignation at the way Washington has operated over the last 12 years. He communicated his intense passion to lift government to a plane the country deserves. He did note that he has fought to change the Republican Party during its period of decay. And he diagnosed that decay Thursday night (to the tepid applause of the faithful).

And this passion for change, combined with his proven and evident integrity, led to the crescendo of raw energy that marked this convention’s conclusion.

His policies are still not quite there yet, but McCain has the heart of an insurgent.

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