Making Sense of "Country First"

John McCain’s speech at the Republican National Convention did a handful of things poorly and a lot of things well. While the speech didn’t make Cindy McCain’s teal jacket fit properly, nor prevent the large screen behind the nominee from looking (at times) like a green screen, it did an impressive job of highlighting McCain’s extraordinary past and divorced the senator from President Bush as well as could have been expected.

 

The speech seemed most directed at establishing a counter narrative to Barack Obama’s call for “Change We Need.” The notion that since his capture in Vietnam, McCain has always, and will continue, to put “Country First” came across loud and clear. Viewed in isolation it is a persuasive narrative, and it is hard to imagine someone better suited to saying it than McCain. But in the context of this election “Country First” means something different. It means that McCain, who bent over backwards to separate himself from the Republican Party in his speech, is a Republican in a decidedly negative way.

In his speech Obama told Americans that “If John McCain wants to have a debate about who has the temperament, and judgment, to serve as the next Commander-in-Chief, that’s a debate I’m ready to have.” This is a debate everybody agrees America is ready for and needs to have; even McCain’s speech emphasized that times are bad and change is needed. But the Republican nominee wants no part of a debate about temperament and judgment. He wants a debate about personality.

This is nothing new for the Republican Party. The 2004 election was more about John Kerry’s character (flip flopping and questionable patriotism) than it was about temperament or judgment. In this election Republicans face the reality that Americans agree with Obama’s judgment on the issues more often than they disagree. McCain’s strategy, then, is to make the election not about that judgment but about Obama’s supposed selfishness.

This is being done in a pronounced way. In his speech McCain told us, “I’m not running for president because I think I’m blessed with such personal greatness that history has anointed me to save our country in its hour of need.” This argument, the attack version of “Country First,” is only a slightly more nuanced form of the accusation that Obama is a celebrity; he is looking out for himself instead of the welfare of others. In anticipation of this claim, Obama noted in his speech that “I’ve got news for…John McCain. We all put our country first.” Apparently McCain would like us to believe that self is a more distant second for him than it is for his opponent.

McCain said that during his capture in Vietnam he realized “I wasn’t my own man anymore. I was my country’s.” I believe him. But the “Country First” narrative makes one thing very clear. When it comes to making a big election about small things, he is his party’s man too.

 

-William Leiter, Covers Editor

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