With the just-completed Republican convention now just a St. Paul memory, let’s compare the acceptance speech of the GOP’s 2008 presidential nominee with that of the most cited historical figure at the convention, Ronald Reagan.
Reagan’s acceptance speech in 1980 was set amid the widely perceived malaise of the Carter administration, which gave the Republican nominee fertile ground for attacking the status quo. “They say that the United States has had its day in the sun; that our nation has passed its zenith,” the candidate thundered. “They expect you to tell your children that the American people no longer have the will to cope with their problems; that the future will be one of sacrifice and few opportunities.
“My fellow citizens, I utterly reject that view.”
McCain’s speech also attacked the status quo, but his task was a little harder since the White House has been GOP territory for the last eight years — the Democratic candidate has made the word “change” a centerpiece of his campaign. McCain did mention the touchy subject, even as in an hour of oratory he never once mentioned the sitting president by name or even after the third paragraph alluded to the current administration. (The L.A. Times counted the speech references to Dubya at both major party conventions: at least 140 times for the Democrats, six for the GOP.)
“I fight to restore the pride and principles of our party,” McCain said. “We were elected to change Washington, and we let Washington change us. We lost the trust of the American people when some Republicans gave in to the temptations of corruption.”
As result of these circumstances, the biggest differences in the speeches lie in the methods used to frame change. Reagan stressed the essential optimism his campaign represented, while McCain focused on his own story and what it showed about his character: “I’ve been an imperfect servant of my country for many years. But I have been her servant first, last and always.”
Reagan never addressed his own history and instead delivered a policy-heavy speech that in retrospect was surprisingly heavy on specifics. McCain’s speech, in contrast, was fairly light on specific proposals, although he did make pitches for an increased dependent tax deduction and for nuclear energy.
In fact, the energy portion of McCain’s speech was actually quite similar to the same portion of Reagan’s address.
Those who preside over the worst energy shortage in our history tell us to use less, so that we will run out of oil, gasoline, and natural gas a little more slowly. Conservation is desirable, of course, for we must not waste energy. But conservation is not the sole answer to our energy needs.
America must get to work producing more energy. The Republican program for solving economic problems is based on growth and productivity.
Large amounts of oil and natural gas lay beneath our land and off our shores, untouched because the present administration seems to believe the American people would rather see more regulation, taxes and controls than more energy.
Coal offers great potential. So does nuclear energy produced under rigorous safety standards. It could supply electricity for thousands of industries and millions of jobs and homes. It must not be thwarted by a tiny minority opposed to economic growth which often finds friendly ears in regulatory agencies for its obstructionist campaigns.
Make no mistake. We will not permit the safety of our people or our environment heritage to be jeopardized, but we are going to reaffirm that the economic prosperity of our people is a fundamental part of our environment.
And now McCain:
My fellow Americans, when I’m president, we’re going to embark on the most ambitious national project in decades. We are going to stop sending $700 billion a year to countries that don’t like us very much. We will attack the problem on every front. We will produce more energy at home. We will drill new wells offshore, and we’ll drill them now. We will build more nuclear power plants. We will develop clean coal technology. We will increase the use of wind, tide, solar and natural gas. We will encourage the development and use of flex-fuel, hybrid and electric automobiles.
Sen. Obama thinks we can achieve energy independence without more drilling and without more nuclear power. But Americans know better than that. We must use all resources and develop all technologies necessary to rescue our economy from the damage caused by rising oil prices and to restore the health of our planet. It’s an ambitious plan, but Americans are ambitious by nature, and we have faced greater challenges. It’s time for us to show the world again how Americans lead.
This great national cause will create millions of new jobs, many in industries that will be the engine of our future prosperity; jobs that will be there when your children enter the workforce.
Perhaps the main difference is that Reagan mentioned both conservation and the environment in his discussion of energy policy, while McCain did not.
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