That was really satisfying. Every night this week I DVR’d the PBS coverage of the convention and started watching at 8:45 or 9 — that way by 10 or so I’d be nearly caught up after fast-forwarding through all the various functionaries. Obama’s speech really felt like a culminating payoff to the week (although it was distracting when Sarah showed up in the middle of it with a mewling newborn kitten — more on that later).
I liked Andrew Sullivan’s comment today, which accords with my brother Jake’s theory (expressed to me a week ago) that Obama and his people were engaging in a crafty “rope-a-dope” strategy — letting McCain attack, hanging back and not really responding, waiting it out, and then finally striking back at the right moment.
It was a deeply substantive speech, full of policy detail, full of people other than the candidate, centered overwhelmingly on domestic economic anxiety. It was a liberal speech, more unabashedly, unashamedly liberal than any Democratic acceptance speech since the great era of American liberalism. But it made the case for that liberalism – in the context of the decline of the American dream, and the rise of cynicism and the collapse of cultural unity. His ability to portray that liberalism as a patriotic, unifying, ennobling tradition makes him the most lethal and remarkable Democratic figure since John F Kennedy.
What he didn’t do was give an airy, abstract, dreamy confection of rhetoric. The McCain campaign set Obama up as a celebrity airhead, a Paris Hilton of wealth and elitism. And he let them portray him that way, and let them over-reach, and let them punch him again and again … and then he turned around and destroyed them. If the Rove Republicans thought they were playing with a patsy, they just got a reality check.
He took every assault on him and turned them around. He showed not just that he understood the experience of many middle class Americans, but that he understood how the Republicans have succeeded in smearing him. And he didn’t shrink from the personal charges; he rebutted them. Whoever else this was, it was not Adlai Stevenson. It was not Jimmy Carter. And it was less afraid and less calculating than Bill Clinton.
Above all, he took on national security – face on, full-throttle, enraged, as we should all be, at how disastrously American power has been handled these past eight years. He owned this issue in a way that no Democrat has owned it since Kennedy. That’s a transformative event. To my mind, it is vital that both parties get to own the war on Jihadist terror and that we escape this awful Rove-Morris trap that poisons the discourse into narrow and petty partisan abuse of patriotism. Obama did this tonight. We are in his debt.
Look: I’m biased at this point. I’m one of those people, deeply distressed at what has happened to America, deeply ashamed of my own misjudgments, who has shifted out of my ideological comfort zone because this man seems different to me, and this moment in history seems different to me. I’m not sure we have many more chances to get off the addiction to foreign oil, to prevent a calamitous terrorist attack, to restore constitutional balance in the hurricane of a terror war.
I’ve said it before – months and months ago. I should say it again tonight. This is a remarkable man at a vital moment. America would be crazy to throw this opportunity away. America must not throw this opportunity away.
One observation (obviously not an original one): in the focus on Obama’s “lofty rhetoric” and oratorical powers, it sometimes seems forgotten that for a President, words and language are the primary and almost the only tool at hand. The President isn’t going to wade into a bar fight, fire a gun, lift heavy weights, run a marathon, or anything like that. He (or she) is going to use language is various forms, in speeches, policy meetings, bills, diplomacy, and so on. Even the President’s “actions” are for the most part going to be verbal. So it’s not as if it’s a minor or trivial part of the job to be a powerful and effective speaker and crafter of words.
This week sent me back to the way I felt a while ago, that it seems crazy and impossible that McCain could stand a chance this year, although that is probably naive. It does seem like a sign, though, that a hurricane threatening New Orleans may arrive simultaneously with the Republican convention.