ST. PAUL (JTA) – John McCain used his closing speech at the Republican National Convention to unveil his game plan for claiming the mantle of real change: Shore up support among conservatives by touting traditional GOP positions while appealing to undecided voters by criticizing his party’s actual performance and promising to work across party lines.
In the process, McCain offered little new on Israel and Iran – possibly because of Republican confidence that the party has the upper hand over Democrats on those issues.
McCain, a longtime Arizona senator, accepted the party’s nomination Sept. 4 on the final night of the convention here with a speech that promised a Washington shake-up.
“Let me just offer an advance warning to the old, big-spending, do-nothing, me-first, country-second Washington crowd: Change is coming,” McCain said to cheers.
The McCain campaign has striven to undercut claims by the Democratic candidate, U.S. Sen. Barack Obama (D-Ill.), to real change – a tough proposition given his advantage of being a Democrat after eight years of Bush administration rule, including six years when Republicans controlled Congress.
Making the challenge even tougher is McCain’s commitment to a long string of conventional Republican domestic and foreign-policy staples.
Stll, McCain offered a clear break from the increasingly bitter mood in Washington, pledging to work with Democrats and independents once elected.
“Instead of rejecting good ideas because we didn’t think of them first, let’s use the best ideas from both sides,” he said.
McCain already has made clear his most senior adviser on foreign policy – and on some areas of domestic policy – will be Sen. Joe Lieberman (I-Conn.), the former Democrat who became the first Jewish candidate on a national ticket when he was tapped as the Democratic vice presidential nominee in 2000.
Not much in terms of policy appeared to distinguish McCain from Bush, whose unpopularity ratings are at about 65 percent, according to polls.
This is partly because in one critical area, dealing with Iraq, Bush in recent years has caught up with McCain: Bush has increased troops, a policy that has gone some way toward stemming the chaos that ensued in that country after the U.S.-led invasion in 2003.
On education, taxes, trade and immigration, McCain appears to be on the same page as Bush. If there were any difference between the two that came out in the speech Thursday, it was one of emphasis: McCain barely mentioned the social conservatism that characterized much of the Bush administration. He included one passing mention to a “culture of life,” a code for opposition to abortion.
McCain opposes abortion, but has shown little taste for legislating it out of existence. Additionally, unlike many Christian conservatives, he supports embryonic stem-cell research.
Israel wasn’t mentioned in the speech, but McCain did allude to the Jewish state’s concerns at two points.
First, when he outlined unfinished foreign policy business: “Iran remains the chief state sponsor of terrorism, and is on the path to acquiring nuclear weapons,” McCain said. The other reference was in outlining a pledge to promote energy independence – one Obama also has adopted, but without going as far as McCain in pushing for more drilling in the United States.
“We’re going to stop sending $700 billion a year to countries that don’t like us very much,” McCain said. The world’s major oil producers include such countries as Saudi Arabia, Venezuela and Russia.
At the convention, talk on the Middle East often was in conjunction with hopes for energy independence. Alaska Gov. Sarah Palin, McCain’s vice presidential pick, also linked the two in her speech on Sept. 3.
Republicans’ confidence that McCain will claim a greater share of the Jewish vote this November compared to recent presidential elections was evident on the margins of the convention.
Polls have shown McCain claiming at least 32 percent in November, a leap from the 25 percent Bush won in 2004, despite the Obama campaign’s efforts in recent months to stress its support for Israel and its commitment to tougher action against Iran.
Lawmakers attending a Republican Jewish Coalition event Sept. 4 returned constantly to the theme of McCain being a more proven friend of Israel than Obama.
“If you care about the United States of America, if you care about Israel, this election is absolutely critical,” said GOP Sen. John Ensign, whose state, Nevada, is in play this election and its growing Jewish population could prove critical in November.
At the same event, Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.) appeared to imply that the Democratic Party isn’t pro-Israel.
“There’s an important and fundamental difference between the two parties in Washington, and I know you’re not going to be fooled by Democrats claiming that just because they’re for foreign assistance to Israel that they’re pro-Israel,” McConnell said. “Israel’s security and U.S. security are inextricably intertwined and they involve … having an assertive, aggressive, proactive approach to danger.”
Such harsh rhetoric echoed the sharp attacks against Obama delivered by Palin and former New York Mayor Rudolph Giuliani in their speeches the night before.
On McCain’s night, however, the nominee ultimately appeared to take his cues from Lieberman, who in his speech two evenings earlier painted the GOP nominee as a maverick willing to buck his own party and work with Democrats when the national interest required it.