Saturday, August 30, 2008
Hillary gave a great speech. Bill gave a great speech. Barack gave a really great speech. That's what everyone is saying, and who am I to disagree? Of course, I've never been to a convention, Republican or Democratic, where everybody didn't say on Thursday night that it was a really great speech. Truth is, I can barely remember most of them.
The question is whether it matters.
It certainly matters for Bill and Hill. They needed to be seen as having delivered, not only, or even particularly, for Barack Obama's sake, but for the sake of their own places in the party's past and future.
There is an old saying in politics that victory has a thousand fathers and defeat is an orphan. But that is not really true. Defeat is an invitation to find a thousand scapegoats. If Hillary and Bill had not delivered for Obama, they would be prime targets in the blame game that will be in full force come November if he doesn't win. As a result of this week, of two deservedly acclaimed speeches and Hillary's move to nominate Obama by acclimation, there is no one who will be able to credibly argue that Obama's fate is Hillary's or Bill's fault.
But will all these great speeches, Obama's especially, make a difference come November?
There is a short answer to that. No one knows. I talked to some folks Thursday night who were moved, awed and inspired, who honestly believe they saw history in the making and the foundation for a new day in America. I talked to some who were struck by how young he looked, how conventional his promises sounded, how amazing it was that a guy with so little experience could believe that he is ready to be president of the United States. And I talked to some people, more than I would ever have guessed six months ago, who watched the ball game instead, or who were busy putting their kids to bed or fixing dinner and didn't watch at all.
It was a great spectacle. It was amazing theater. It wasn't exactly "I have a Dream." It was more like a Mondale speech, a list, a traditional Democratic agenda delivered by a better speaker in a more spectacular setting. Maybe that's what Hillary's supporters were waiting to hear, what Reagan Democrats wanted to hear. Or maybe they're still asking themselves, as McCain has been encouraging them to do and Hillary encouraged them to do earlier in the year, whether the freshman senator and international celebrity is ready to be president. My guess is both.
Coming into this convention, Obama faced a number of challenges: to convince people that he understands the problems of people who aren't like him; to persuade them that change is more than a slogan and that he will make their lives better; to tie McCain to Bush and, even more importantly, establish that McCain even without Bush is the wrong choice for the future; and to convince people that he, Barack Obama, is ready. I thought his speech went a fair distance toward accomplishing the first two goals.
He did not wear Harvard sweats as a baby. He was not to the Manor, or the Admiral, born. His list of programs was a compendium of Democratic platforms from the last two decades. It may not appeal to small-business men and women worried about higher taxes, or to voters who don't feel rich or live rich but have some reason to worry that they will be the ones who will have to pay for all these new programs. But it was almost certainly the right list for the Hillary Democrats who have, to date, found Obama to be utterly resistible.
With Obama running as many as 15 points behind the generic Democrat, you could do worse, especially in August, than to give a generic Democratic speech. As for undercutting McCain, that may be a closer question. I know Democrats, and most Americans, have had it with Bush, but if there is one Republican who has the ability to separate himself from the president, it is the man who ran against him (and maybe didn't even vote for him) eight years ago.
McCain was for the war (and so was Biden), but he was for a different war than the one Bush waged. He voted against the Bush tax cuts (before he supported them) and has stood up to the president more than most Republican senators. He may be a relative, but he's not a twin.
I think the most important question people ask of a presidential candidate these days is not who he's for or against, or even what he's for or against, but whether he is indeed qualified and ready for the job he seeks. That's a hard, maybe impossible, question for anyone to answer in a speech. Ultimately, that's what the campaign itself will have to answer.
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