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McCain Must Rekindle Individual Spirit
(Originally Printed in Detroit Free Press, September 4, 2008)
The proverbial bounce, derived from political conventions, has greatly
diminished since the Internet Age. A wealth of information and misinformation has
fortified voters’ opinions well before the convention season. And if Barack Obama’s
“symphony” of a convention speech cannot shake the polls, how can John McCain
accomplish the feat?
When Ronald Reagan accepted his party’s nomination at the 1980 Republican
National Convention, he said, “‘Trust Me’ government asks that we concentrate our
hopes and dreams on one man.” That night, Reagan spoke of courage, strength and
sacrifice. He urged a renewal of “the American spirit of voluntary service, of
cooperation, of private and community initiative; a spirit that flows like a deep and
mighty river through the history of our nation.”
Perhaps destiny has chosen John McCain – whom Reagan quickly befriended –
to revive this message for the American people in his upcoming convention speech.
There is no question that the language of Reagan reverberates endearingly among
GOP crowds. But it’s the relevance to John McCain’s story as an American hero, as
well as the central message he espouses, that makes it fitting. The man who seeks
to “inspire Americans to serve causes greater than their self interests” must
embolden that theme in St. Paul this week.
The McCain team has enjoyed a discernible boost of intrigue and energy from
picking Governor Sarah Palin as a running mate. And while it may take some
attention away from the Obama-Biden ticket, it also reinforces the need for McCain
to bolster his own leadership credentials.
Barack Obama’s speeches, to the astonishment of his detractors, continue to
inspire voters along the campaign trail. It is John McCain, however, who must
ultimately invigorate his base on core conservative principles and communicate
how they apply to the world today.
In the Republican primary, McCain’s speeches lacked, in both content and
delivery, a certain intensity and exuberance. Much of that stodginess came from his
own frustration and discomfort – and rightfully so – in having to prove his
Republican credentials yet again.
General elections, however, are far more appealing to McCain, who prefers the
label of an equal-opportunity trust buster. The American people are already
comfortable with his bi-partisan record of fighting corporate and political
corruption. In fact, neither presidential candidate has the stigma of being a
Washington insider. But in order to quell Obamamania, McCain needs a convention
speech that reminds voters of his vision, as well as his personal story.
What makes McCain a far more extraordinary leader – well beyond his POW
stories – is his defiance of mediocrity and his sense of honor. He represents the
antithesis of politics as usual. But he has yet to convince voters, particularly
Independents, that he can continue this crusade of reforming Washington.
Obama’s brand of change was best exemplified in his acceptance speech –
promoting another Great Society of entitlements. But instead of blaming the
oppressor, as most Democrats mistakenly do, Obama wisely focused on the
oppressed. Such reminders create an emotional discharge among disaffected
voters, many of whom have struggled with the rising costs of food, gas, health care
In McCain’s acceptance speech, he must differentiate that the utopian America
lies in the power of the individual, rather than the power of government.
On top issues such as education and health care, McCain’s greatest asset is the
theme of “choice.” He needs to underscore the freedom for parents to choose the
best schools for their children and the freedom for patients to choose the best
insurance providers for their family’s health. But even more, he must explain why
Americans must fight to preserve such freedoms, rather than defer to more
McCain’s strong environmental record allows him to strike a pragmatic
balance. He must differentiate how his cap-and-trade approach places the
incentive and power for individuals, not government, to reduce greenhouse gas
On economic policy, Barack Obama may have done John McCain a favor by
focusing heavily on the lack of opportunity for upward mobility. McCain must
respond with a dose of Reagan optimism, highlighting the hard work and sacrifice
of millions of Americans who provide for their families, create value to their
communities and realize unthinkable dreams. He must equally address how
government influence – particularly in pork-barrel spending – has stifled economic
McCain’s credibility on foreign policy is one that not even the prose of Barack
Obama can fracture. As such, McCain must stay specific on his plans to defeat
radical Islamic terror, strengthen our military and develop effective missile
defenses to protect us from emerging security threats, aid democratic governments
in unstable regions and stop the genocide in Rwanda and Darfur.
Conservatives can expect McCain to echo his pledge to nominate federal judges
who have a strict interpretation of the Constitution. Democrats will hear his
commitment to restore alliances throughout the global community. And
Independents will appreciate McCain’s ongoing crusade to rid government of
special interest groups.
But the paramount message for John McCain, before leaving the GOP
Convention, will be defining what it means to serve causes greater than our self
interests. As Barack Obama promotes the vast responsibilities of government, John
McCain must emphasize the vast abilities of the individual. As Barack Obama
promises to bring his own heroism to Washington, John McCain must inspire
selfless acts of heroism by every American. As Barack Obama speaks of sacrifice as
a loss, John McCain must speak of it as a gain for the greater good.
McCain and Obama have produced far different effects on the campaign trail.
One candidate commands admiration while the other invokes adoration.
Most analysts suggest that this election hinges on the rise or fall of Barack
Obama and, consequently, the revitalized ‘Trust Me’ government of the Democrats.
But the real question is whether the American people want our government to be
the agent of change, or whether that responsibility lies within ourselves.
President Reagan closed his 1980 convention speech by asking, “Isn’t it time
that we, the people, carry out those un-kept promises?” By all means, there would
be nothing more Reaganesque than John McCain ushering a new era of American
service and greater prosperity.
The writer, a managing general partner at SymAction Communications and an adjunct
professor of communication at Pepperdine University, worked for Senator John McCain in
both Washington DC and Phoenix, AZ.
Michael Wissot is a leading market research and communication strategist in
Southern California. He serves as a focus group moderator to many Fortune 500
companies and top public officials. He can be reached at SymAction.com.