QUICK THOUGHTS ON OBAMA’S SPEECH

To choose a favorite talking head buzz phrase, I think Barack Obama did what he had to do tonight. And he did it quite well.

First, closing a convention that erred too far on the side of nice (that means you, Mark Warner), Barack Obama came out swinging against John McCain, and I think he managed to do it in a way that’s hard to characterize as “nasty” or “shrill” or “too angry,” unless you’re one of the people who characterizes Democrats that way for a living. He crossed that threshold John Kerry or Al Gore never quite did, where you take on political opponents with a toughness that suggests you could take on enemies as President. And he maintained his sense of humor while doing it.

Second, Obama also addressed the imaginary lack of specificity in his policy proposals (the only thing more imaginary may be the desire among voters to hear specifics of policy proposals) by laying out a series of them (including improvements to the bankruptcy law that his running mate helped worsen). He had to do it; it’s good that he did. But it’s an especially silly expectation coming from a press corps that lets John McCain continue praising himself for having championed policies he currently opposes. It’s a good sign that the speech gets compared to a State of the Union address (or is that too presumptuous!).

Third, Obama talked about his own story, not in the linear way he has in the past and others have at this convention, but by explicitly comparing experiences in his life to experiences of Americans he’s met. Of course it’s sad that he has a higher bar to clear here than would a White candidate. That said, he did a compelling job connecting Americans’ stories and his own and explaining how they inform where he’ll take the country.

And the uplift was there too.

As for the disappointment, of course some of the self-consciously non-that-kind-of-Democrat stuff (are we reinventing government again?) is bothersome.

And in a speech that was more aggressive than we’ve come to expect from Democratic nominees, there was some needless defensiveness. If you’re going to talk about the importance of fatherhood, why say it’s something we “admit”? Aren’t you undercuttng yourself? Why say “Don’t tell me Democrats won’t defend America,” as though you concede that that’s the perception – and why respond to the criticism you brought up by naming presidents from forty years ago? Obama seems unable to help himself from rehearsing potential counterarguments in a way that doesn’t really help him – as in “Some people will say that this is just a cover for the same liberal etc…” And I think Obama made himself seem a little smaller when he followed talking about the struggles his family has overcome by protesting that he’s not a celebrity. Finally, while he effectively seized the high ground on patriotism, it seems overly restrictive for Obama to say he won’t suggest that McCain takes his policy positions with any eye to political expediency – I hope he doesn’t really mean that part, which would seem to leave John Kerry’s “Senator McCain v. Candidate McCain” line of attack off limits.

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A CAMPAIGN ABOUT CHANGE VERSUS A CAMPAIGN ABOUT MCCAIN?

Reading Michael Crowley’s Mark Salter profile in TNR, you wonder how real McCainiacs can really keep a straight face while arguing that the Obama campaign is the one driven by a cult of personality built around a narcissist who feels he’s owed the presidency. Salter is apparently livid that Obama has stolen McCain’s themes of having matured out of a colorful childhood and been bettered by patriotism and commitment to public service. Did Mark Salter make it through his top perch in John McCain’s 2000 campaign without ever listening to a George W. Bush speech? Salter even jokes

“I often regret that we didn’t copyright ‘serving a cause greater than your self-interest,'” he cracks.

And Barack Obama is supposed to have an arrogance problem? Crowley also resurrects Mark Salter’s tirade against a college graduating class whose student speaker had the temerity to criticize McCain before he spoke:

Should you grow up and ever get down to the hard business of making a living and finding a purpose for your lives beyond self-indulgence some of you might then know a happiness far more sublime than the fleeting pleasure of living in an echo chamber. And if you are that fortunate, you might look back on the day of your graduation and your discourtesy to a good and honest man with a little shame and the certain knowledge that it is very unlikely any of you will ever posses one small fraction of the character of John McCain.

This isn’t some out of control staffer – this is the guy who survives every McCainland shake-up, ghost-writes everything, conceived, crafts, and protects the McCain mythology, etc. But his comments are striking in part because they echo the ethos that emanates from so much of McCain’s campaign: this sense that John McCain deserves the presidency, even if America isn’t good enough to deserve John McCain.

Who else would put up an internet ad about how the candidate as an elite boarding school student learned the honor code and committed to turn in other boys if they were cheating – and he’s applied those values ever since? Or one that just consists of speechifying by their guy and quotes from Teddy Roosevelt? Can you imagine if Barack Obama tried to pull that? Meanwhile McCain’s campaign brings up his POW experience at every conceivable opportunity while demanding he be recognized as too modest to talk about it – and how dare Wes Clark question whether it qualifies him to be president? (Remember the attacks on John Kerry for talking too much about his purple hearts)

Today Obama is predictably under attack from conservatives for the ostensible arrogance of giving a speech to a big crowd outside the United States. In that speech, Obama talks about his personal story and what he loves about America – echoing, though understandably not repeating his statement in his convention speech that “in no other country on Earth is my story even possible.” This is the most common intersection of autobiography and patriotism in an Obama speech: America is a great country which has made so much possible for me. With McCain, the formulation is more often: I love America, and I’ve sacrificed for America my whole life.

McCain is of course entitled to tout his military service, which is certainly more admirable than what he’s done in the United States Senate. And his campaign’s steady emphasis on McCain’s story and character I’m sure is driven in part by recognition that more people cast their votes on such things – ethos rather than logos in Paul Waldman’s formulation. But – aside from Crowley’s observation that McCain’s character appeal seems more attuned to what voters wanted in 2000 than in 2008 – I have to hope that it’s not just we “base voters” who find his campaign’s sense of entitlement grating.

Everyone seems now to agree that McCain’s wasn’t helped by the speech he gave the night Obama clinched his delegate majority. But it wasn’t just the green background – McCain came off like John Lithgow’s disapproving father figure in Footloose warning America away from the dangers of Barack Obama’s dancing. Or like Gore Vidal’s character (the Democrat) lecturing the debate audience not to fall for the titular Republican in Bob Roberts. It seemed like the best case scenario is you walk away convinced that however exciting it would be to vote Obama, you’d really better vote for McCain (and eat your vegetables). That speech brought home a sense of McCain as the candidate of obligation. Salter’s screeds bring home the sense that we’re doubly obligated to vote for McCain:

First, because voting Obama is a risky indulgence. Second, because after all McCain’s done for us, we owe it to him.

Which came first: the mandate that we have to vote for John McCain, or the low level of enthusiasm (14% in a recent survey) among his supporters?

Which is more arrogant and presumptuous: “We are the ones we have been waiting for” or “The American president America has been waiting for”?

INDUCTIVE REASONING, AS PRACTICED BY BILL O’REILLY

Here’s a basic summary of the argument “No Spin Zone” listeners were treated to on the drive home tonight:

Democrats opposed the war in Iraq.

Therefore failure in Iraq is good for Democrats.

Therefore Democrats support failure in Iraq.

Therefore Democrats care more about what’s good for Democrats than what’s good for America.

Therefore Democrats can’t be trusted.

Any questions?

"THERE IS NO CRACK"

The Democratic leadership’s hesitant response to Russ Feingold’s call to censure Bush is disappointing, but not surprising (as usual, Mr. Joementum outdid his Democratic colleagues with his claim that coming out against the President’s law-breaking and keeping America safe and free are somehow mutually exclusive). Same goes for the Republican leadership’s ostensible apoplexy. The Republican reaction is more memorable though. As easy as it is these days to become numb to flag-waiving and treason-baiting in response to criticism and defense of the indefensible, Bill Frist’s words are worth remembering:

here we are, the Republican Party, the leadership in the Congress, supporting the President of the United States as Commander in Chief, who is out there fighting al Qaeda and the Taliban and Osama bin Laden and the people who have sworn, have sworn to destroy Western civilization and all the families listening to us. And they’re out now attacking, at least today, through this proposed censure vote, out attacking our Commander in Chief…

As I was listening to it, I was hoping deep inside that the leadership in Iran and other people who really have the U.S. not in their best interests, were not listening because of the terrible, terrible signal it sends…the signal that it sends that there is in any way a lack of support for our Commander in Chief, who is leading us with a bold vision in a way that we know is making our homeland safer is wrong. And it sends a perception around the world and, again, that’s why I’m saying as leader at least of the Republican side of this equation, that it’s wrong, because leadership around the world of our sworn enemies are going to say, well, now we have a little crack there. There is no crack. The American people are solidly behind this president in conducting this war on terror.

What Frist is suggesting, in no uncertain terms, is that the military strength of this country and the political strength of its President are inseparable. He’s willfully grafting the President onto the nation and the military as parts of a single coherent whole which all Americans are obligated to defend and support against those who would oppose it. Such logic – attack the President, attack America – makes loyal opposition a theoretical impossibility and makes American patriotism and Republican partisanship synonymous. There are names for an ideology that admits no distinction between the leader, the people, the military, and the nation. But it’s so twentieth century.

As Feingold said today:

Even more troubling than the arguments the President has made is what he relies on to make them convincing – the credibility of the office of the President itself. He essentially argues that the American people should trust him simply because of the office he holds. But Presidents don’t serve our country by just asking for trust, they must earn that trust, and they must tell the truth. This President hides behind flawed legal arguments, and even behind the office he holds, but he cannot hide from what he has created: nothing short of a constitutional crisis. The President has violated the law, and Congress must respond.