[This article also appears on Huffingtonpost.com. You can access it from my author page here.]
"And let me offer an advance warning to the old, big spending, do nothing, me first, country second Washington crowd: change is coming."
"And when we tell you we're going to change Washington, and stop leaving our country's problems for some unluckier generation to fix, you can count on it. We've got a record of doing just that, and the strength, experience, judgment and backbone to keep our word to you."
"We need to change the way government does almost everything: from the way we protect our security to the way we compete in the world economy; from the way we respond to disasters to the way we fuel our transportation network; from the way we train our workers to the way we educate our children. ... We have to catch up to history, and we have to change the way we do business in Washington."
- All quotes from John McCain's acceptance speech at the Republican convention, September 4, 2008
There is an old story used to illustrate the meaning of the Yiddish word chutzpah (roughly translated as "nerve" or "gall"): A man kills his parents, and then throws himself on the mercy of the court as an orphan.
That story has had a nice reign, but I think from now on, it will be replaced by John McCain's speech last night accepting the Republican nomination for the presidency.
McCain argued that Americans should vote for him to bring change to Washington. It's a good position to take, since Americans certainly want change. But the policies and practices that Americans want to see changed are policies and practices that were supported -- and continue to be supported -- by none other than John McCain.
McCain is essentially arguing: Elect me to fix all the problems I caused. It is an argument that an engaged and educated electorate would reject out of hand as preposterous, which means that it has an excellent chance of working in a presidential election in the United States.
More than anything else, Americans want change in the economy. Unemployment is at 6.1 percent, its highest point in five years. Americans have accumulated an unprecedented amount of debt, and the gap between rich and poor has grown to a discouragingly large chasm. (Steven Hill pointed out in a Huffingtonpost.com article in 2007 that the Federal Reserve reported that the "top 10 percent of income earners in the United States now owns 70 percent of the wealth, and the wealthiest one percent owns more than the bottom 95 percent.") And the fallout from the subprime mortgage crisis has led to millions of foreclosures, among other hits to the American economy. But the real visible, hard-to-ignore symbol of the tough economy for many Americans has been the explosion of the price of gas.
While economic conditions are not completely and directly linked to the policies of the president, George W. Bush's philosophy of deregulation and giving unfettered power to corporations has not helped. One of the key factors that allowed the subprime mortgage crisis to occur was the gutting of the Glass-Steagall Act, which was passed in 1933 after the stock market crash of 1929, with the primary purpose of keeping commercial banks (who concentrate on consumers) separate from investment banks (who can engage in more speculative activity). Who was responsible for knocking down this wall and ending the limitations of Glass-Steagall that had stood for more than 65 years? Former Senator Phil Gramm of Texas, who is the architect of McCain's economic policy (and the man who has now on two occasions called the economic setbacks "mental" and Americans "whiners" for complaining about the economy).
What about gas prices? As prices are set by a global market, there is no one cause for skyrocketing numbers, with factors ranging from increased consumption by India and China to a lack of increase in processing capacity in the U.S. partly to blame. But Republicans and Democrats alike agree that a major factor in increasing gas prices was the passage of the so-called Enron Loophole (officially known as the Commodity Futures Modernization Act), which exempted energy trading from regulatory oversight. In other words, speculation was brought to the gas markets. (Keith Olbermann did an in-depth, fact-heavy, flawlessly researched report on this issue, which you can watch here.)
Who was the person responsible for the Enron Loophole? Do I have to even say it: Gramm, who received major campaign contributions from Enron.
McCain's economic plan calls for maintaining the key elements of the policies of the Bush administration, namely tax cuts for the rich. (In a great clip, which you can watch here, McCain supporter Gov. Mark Sanford of South Carolina cannot come up with a single difference between the McCain and Bush economic plans.)
And, like Bush, McCain has thrown his lot in with the big oil companies, taking millions from them while advocating for their two pet projects: massive tax breaks for oil companies and offshore drilling.
Clearly, the big oil companies have a lot to gain in maintaining the status quo and everything to lose if energy policy changes to bring about reduced use of oil and the increased prominence of renewable sources of energy. Not surprisingly, McCain has opposed tax breaks for wind power and other renewable energies.
McCain is asking to be the agent of change to reverse our economic and energy policies, even though they are the very policies he supported, and even though his current plan calls for maintaining these very policies he says have to change. That request is the living embodiment of chutzpah.
The other issue on which voters want to see change is Iraq. In 2006, the electorate booted Republicans from control of the House and Senate, almost solely on the issue of Iraq. And both parties agree that Democrats are likely to make further gains in Congress in November. McCain was an early and avid supporter of invading Iraq, telling Americans that, "I believe we can win an overwhelming victory in a very short period of time," and that "we will be welcomed as liberators" once Saddam Hussein is deposed. (You can see for yourself here.) McCain opposed any move to set a date for the withdrawal of U.S. troops, and he has maintained that position even though virtually everyone around him has arrived at the conclusion that such a date is necessary. The Iraqi government itself has insisted on a certain date of withdrawal, and even the Bush administration has agreed with the Iraqi government to set such a date.
McCain is at the forefront of a war that was unnecessary, made us less safe, was fought on fraudulent grounds, eroded our country's standing in the world, cost us more than 4,000 U.S. lives, adversely affected hundreds of thousands of other Americans (soldiers wounded, families burdened), and took $1 trillion from American coffers.
Again, McCain is asking to be the agent of change for a disastrous policy he virulently supported (and continues to support). Textbook chutzpah.
The bottom line is that on every key issue facing Americans, McCain is essentially arguing to continue the status quo of the Bush administration, with whom he voted 90 percent of the time. Claiming that to be change takes, say it with me, chutzpah.
So when McCain says, "And let me offer an advance warning to the old, big spending, do nothing, me first, country second Washington crowd: change is coming," I can only reply, "But Sen. McCain, you have been part of that 'Washington crowd' for 26 years. You put oil companies (and other corporations) ahead of average Americans over and over again, voting for oil tax breaks, tax breaks for the rich and privatizing social security, but opposing the GI Bill, increased benefits for veterans, a ban on torture, health insurance for children, and a campaign finance reform law with your name on it."
And when McCain says, "And when we tell you we're going to change Washington, and stop leaving our country's problems for some unluckier generation to fix, you can count on it. We've got a record of doing just that, and the strength, experience, judgment and backbone to keep our word to you," I can only reply, "But Sen. McCain, you have a record of supporting the very policies you now say you will change, including tax cuts for the rich and $1 trillion of spending in Iraq that is funded solely by borrowing, thus passing the burden to 'unluckier' generations. So you haven't shown any 'strength, experience, judgment and backbone' in addressing these issues so far."
And when McCain says, "We need to change the way government does almost everything: from the way we protect our security to the way we compete in the world economy; from the way we respond to disasters to the way we fuel our transportation network; from the way we train our workers to the way we educate our children. ... We have to catch up to history, and we have to change the way we do business in Washington," I can only reply, "But Sen. McCain, over the last eight years, we have protected our security in your way, competed in the world economy on your terms, responded to disasters with an incompetent government you backed and to which you did not stand up, fueled our transportation network via the oil companies that you unfailingly supported to the detriment of our country's future, failed to provide training to our workers under your watch, educated our children under a federal policy you were in favor of, and did business in Washington in a manner you were an integral part of. So how can you now put yourself forward as the person to make these changes?"
One answer: chutzpah.
Move over guy who killed his parents, there is a new embodiment of chutzpah, and his name is John McCain.