John McCain won this new cycle with the quotation of the day, saying: “I want to thank my fellow Republicans as we take off our Republican hats and put on our American hats.” This statement helped explain the Republicans’ decision allowing Mother Nature to disrupt their convention – although some doubt they had much of a choice. As always in politics, self-interest mingled with self-sacrifice, producing a dizzying mix of cynicism and idealism.
Without trying to minimize the current tribulations of the hurricane-Gustav-tossed regions, and well-aware of the ongoing trauma of Katrina, it is nevertheless easy to mock the sick synergies between hysterical television reporters and posturing politicians on display this holiday weekend. Network anchors often seem downright disappointed when their exaggerated predictions of unprecedented storm damage so frequently are not met; and there are few scenes more cringe-inducing than a convention-hall filled with maudlin politicians trying to outdo each other sentimentally.
Moreover, the strategy worked. So far, the coverage of McCain and the Republicans has been rapturous. President George W. Bush and Vice President Cheney ended up with golden excuses for keeping their low popularity ratings and toxic embrace of the McCain campaign thousands of miles away. And Cindy McCain was spared the humiliation of having her speech compared with Michelle Obama’s silky-smooth superb speech last week.
Less cynically, there is something unsettling about changing procedures in one of the northern-most states when a storm is affecting some of the southern-most states. In politics as in entertainment, the usual instinct is to insist that “the show must go on.” One of American democracy’s glories is that presidential elections have kept to their quadrennial cycle in good times and in bad, during civil war and world wars. Sticking to the routine despite disasters, be they natural or man-made, has great appeal. To start fiddling with the fundamentals of the American political system such as the party conventions unnerves the body politic.
Despite all these concerns, there is something profoundly moving about dramatically changing procedures in one of the northern-most states when a storm is affecting some of the southern-most states. McCain’s sacrifice – and losing four days of television coverage during such a tight race is a sacrifice – helps remind Americans that politics is about more than partisanship. McCain’s gesture – and the hundreds of thousands of dollars Republicans have been donating to flood relief at the convention – affirm that these disparate states remain united, that this country of 300 million people still has a sense of community.
One of the great secrets to American success has been American nationalism, this near magical ability to feel a sense of connection across this vast, diverse, continental empire. There is something delightfully old-fashioned about turning the Republican National Convention into what one Fox News anchor called yet another Labor Day telethon. Before pummeling each other politically, before even choosing a future leader, Americans sometimes need to stop what they are doing, roll up their sleeves, and work together to solve a problem. When people from all over the country gathering in Minneapolis feel the pain of their fellow citizens in New Orleans, America shows that it still works.
We need a politics that can accommodate that kind of communal cooperation even amid partisan combat. We need politicians who can build that sense of community and respond to national crises as national leaders, seeking what is best for our nation, not just for their party.
In fairness, Barack Obama and the Democrats have been equally gracious during this difficult, confusing weekend. But given that John McCain and the Republicans sacrificed more this week, they deserve all the more credit. This campaign has not always produced the kind of high-minded politics both Obama and McCain each have promised, at their respective bests. But this moment of inter-regional sensitivity, national sensibility, and human generosity should be remembered as a highlight, not only of this campaign but of this era, when our focus on individual differences and elite cynicism about nationalism tends to overlook the powerful positive forces keeping Americans together, forging the American nation.