It is no disrespect to the millions of people in the path of Hurricane Gustav to note that Republican presidential candidate John McCain reaped some political benefit from the powerful storm. It is no disrespect to McCain either. Quite the opposite: Faced with the question of how to handle the Minnesota convention that is to officially nominate him for president, just as an evacuation was underway at the other end of the Mississippi River, he and other GOP leaders made the right call in choosing a stripped-down, business-like session rather than a four-day party.
Gustav also helped out the Republicans' soon-to-be nominee by allowing him to distance himself from President Bush several times over: It kept the unpopular president, and the even more unpopular vice president, away from the convention (although Bush spoke via satellite); it further separated McCain, in image, at least, from the ineptitude and indifference that the Bush administration showed in the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina in 2005; and, for those who believe that the recent bout of killer storms is a consequence of global climate change, it served as a reminder that McCain, unlike Bush, acknowledges the consensus of the scientific community.
To retain the White House, the GOP should demonstrate that it is a different party from Bush's -- the one that much of the public associates with a prolonged war started on false pretenses, a ballooning national debt and reckless deregulation. McCain once presented himself as the president's opposite, but in recent months has begun to sound more like him, embracing the religious right, amping up his hawkish rhetoric and promoting the sort of tax cuts he once attacked as irresponsible. Gustav gave him the chance to again show himself as his own man.
There's a downside to that supposed maverick image. California Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger, like Bush, has canceled his convention appearance, but the decision stems from his state's record-setting tardiness in adopting a budget, due in no small part to the alienation Republican lawmakers feel toward their "post-partisan" GOP governor. McCain must learn from Schwarzenegger if he is to appeal to both reformist Republicans and Bush conservatives. Judging from the comments of delegates anxiously watching TV screens in hotels and restaurants in and around St. Paul, he has, with his convention decision, walked the line well.
A convention is little more than political theater in the first place, and the act of scaling down a party, however appropriate, is as much a performance staged for public consumption as anything the Democrats put on last week in Denver. But theater -- whether it is a speech, a spectacle or a decision to tone down a convention -- is important. Now McCain must show whether he is a good enough impresario to withstand the political storm that has at its calm center a Democrat who represents even more vociferously a change from the policies, and personality, of the current administration.