There was a lone protester standing outside the H Street entrance of the Grand Hyatt to greet me upon my arrival yesterday morning to catch McCain's speech. She had pink hair and a pink shirt, and she put down her megaphone to hand me a pink flier that read, "kNOw McCain, kNOw WAR." "I am here to protest John McCain because he votes for war in Iraq, and we don't want that. We want to stop this war," Lorena Schmidt said to me, and then she raised the megaphone to her mouth and began chanting about endless war. I wondered who were the "we" she was referring to.
Attendees had been warned the day before to show up at the subterranean ballroom early -- at 7 am -- in order to make it through the intense security with time to enjoy breakfast. To facilitate the screening, we had been urged to leave behind our handbags and laptops --and also our guns and knives. Everybody laughed, and I was surely not alone in assuming it was just a joke, deftly executed. However, later in the Media Room I found a print-out of the speaker's talking points, and it was, in fact, an actual warning: "Guns, knives, pepper spray in your room." And the NFIB membership must've obliged, because when I reached the checkpoint at 8:30, there was no line, no wait.
Once seated and having eaten breakfast, I tried to take the pulse of the room by soliciting the opinions of my tablemates. Four of the people seated with me were NFIB officials and so recused themselves from my survey. Of the five that remained, two men leaned toward McCain by default, even though they felt he wasn't conservative enough. A third man seemed only slightly more enthusiastic about a McCain presidency. The two women preferred to let their husbands do the talking. And yet, as the strains of "Battle Hymn of the Republic" came over the PA, the room seemed to come to attention. You couldn't exactly call it a fervor, but when ex-eBay CEO Meg Whitman introduced the Arizona senator by saying, "John, we are glad you always put OUR country first" -- which struck me as a veiled attack on Democrat Barack Obama's patriotism, and, by extension, his race -- the assembled rose to their feet for a standing ovation that lasted more than a half-minute.
McCain began his speech with a bit of simultaneous self-deprecation and homage. "You know, I've never run a small, struggling enterprise -- unless you count my presidential campaign last year," he said. "But I do know that more than anything else, small businesses are what make the American economy run. You're the ones who take the risks, often with little start-up money and nothing to fall back on. You're the ones who do most of the innovating in this country, and most of the hiring, too. For women, for immigrants and for people of every background, small businesses are the path to success and to the American dream, and I congratulate you for it. Congratulate yourselves."
The audience did as it was told, but amid all the cheering and clapping, a woman on the other side of the room began shouting. I couldn't quite make out what she was yelling -- something about more money for small business. I found out later she was an anti-war protester. (Funding for the war was draining away money from small business was what she shouting.) She had evaded the security dragnet with a forged badge. As security hustled her out of the room, McCain said in a quiet voice, "The one thing Americans are tired of is people yelling at each other," and the room once again erupted in applause.
McCain returned to his prepared text, but he only got about two paragraphs when another heckler began shouting. This time the audience booed loudly, and cameramen rushed to photograph the scuffle as she was led away. Then, a few minutes later, a third protester stood up, and she, too, was quickly shouted down. McCain remained silent. "I'm running out of funny lines," he said, which was in itself kind of funny.
On Monday there were rumors in the Media Room that the Republican candidate was going to use the occasion to give a "major speech on jobs." Instead, McCain mostly catalogued his positions on economic matters, and drew sharp contrasts with Obama, who at the moment was himself embarking on an economic tour. "Will we enact the largest single tax increase since the Second World War as my opponent proposes, or will we keep taxes low for families and employers?" McCain asked at one point. On trade: "Senator Obama has a habit of talking down the value of our exports and trade agreements. He even proposed -- he even proposed -- a unilateral -- a unilateral -- re-negotiation of NAFTA, our agreement with Canada and Mexico that accounts for 33 percent of American exports . . . . If I'm elected president, this country will honor its international agreements, including NAFTA, and we will expect the same of others." And: "Another of my disagreements with Senator Obama concerns the estate tax, better known to you as the death tax" -- here McCain's voice took a faux sinister tone, as if he were mocking the term -- "which he proposes to increase to a top rate of 55 percent. The estate tax is one of the most unfair tax laws on the books, and the first step to reform is to keep it predictable and keep it low." Obama proposes ending secret ballots in union elections -- there was a gasp from a nearby table -- and raising and then increasing the minimum wage -- another gasp. "You work hard in small businesses to grow and to create new jobs and opportunities for others -- and the federal government shouldn't make your work any harder."
All of this was red meat for a red-meat eating crowd, and McCain worked these points into guaranteed applause lines, raising his voice and hammering each word. But a couple ideas were greeted with less enthusiasm -- interestingly, because they were presented in arguments that seemed tailor-made for the NFIB. First, he tried to sell the audience on free trade ("I want to break down foreign trade barriers, so that America's small businesses can compete abroad."), but this elicited no reaction from the audience. Nor did they show much interest in his pitch for federal aid to help retrain workers, until he added "and you're the ones who will do that" -- self-referential applause once again.
Then McCain attempted to pit small business against big business -- a gambit the NFIB itself often turns to. "Even when very large businesses violate their trust, they seem to be held to a different standard, getting away with conduct that would leave any small business owner broke," he said. "We need rules that assure fairness and punish wrongdoing in the market, and hold every businessperson in America to the same fair standards." This remark garnered only a lukewarm reaction, and his calls for stepped-up prosecution of securities crimes and shareholder approval for "all aspects of a CEO's pay, including any severance arrangements," were met with silence.
I was surprised, pleasantly so, that McCain would take this stand, and also by the thought with which he concluded his speech. "My goal," he said, "is not to denigrate government but to make it better, not to deride it but to restore its good name." Most of the policies McCain embraced in this speech are the policies of the present Administration. But in this last respect, at least, the Arizona senator is not running for a third Bush term, and he is hardly McSame.
He finished to another long, standing ovation. But after the speech was over, as the audience began streaming out, I heard a whisper of dissent. I told the couple next to me, an accountant from Cincinnati and his wife, that I'd learned that the hecklers were anti war protesters. "I'm against war," the wife said quietly. "I don't think he is, though."