Friday, August 29, 2008

The Clintons & Obama, pt. 2

Ever since the mystery and drama left the major political party conventions --beginning with the first thoroughly scripted convention (the Republicans' 1972 convention, when Nixon breezed into a second nomination)-- the events have been predictable and often dull. The Democrats' convention this week has been punctuated by several memorable speeches: Michelle Obama's speech, speeches by party superstars (Kennedy, Kerry and Gore) stressing the urgency of an Obama victory. The Clinton team's stance toward Obama improved during Convention week.
More than a few columnists cited Hillary Clinton's endorsement speech as being "Obama-less." Bill Clinton did much on Wednesday night to counteract the lack of enthusiasm by Hillary. Numerous times he cited Obama's vision, program, intelligence and capability for being president. The speech was classic Bill Clinton: articulate and rousing. He essentially retracted his statement to ABC News suggesting that Barack Obama was not ready to be president. One would hope that Wednesday's enthusiam negated the doubt-casting assessment he gave earlier in the month.

Barack Obama's speech last night was further evidence that Obama is someone that has studied the campaigns of the past and has selected the strengths of some campaigns and avoided the pitfalls of other speeches. His high school years, years of growing attentiveness to politics for future politicos included the 1976 candidacy of Jimmy Carter. It is instructive to recall Carter's campaign and to note some parallels to Obama's campaign. Carter campaigned on a smile and on wanting to reform Wahington. This was a winning combination for his campaign. Like Obama, he seemed the outsider at the start of the campaign. He was less ideological and less liberal than other better known contenders such as Mo Udall, Frank Church or Jerry Brown. The smile and centrist essence of his campaign struck some party regulars as too folksy, potentially evading the pressing issues. Yet, he prevailed in the primaries and in the convention.
Obama has performed in a similar manner: the pitch for change has frustrated some of the Democrats' left flank, as it had provided fodder for the right-wing chat-sters. Akin to Carter, it seemed simplistic, non-substantive, lacking in policy specifics, a feel good phrase that wowed over voters.
And yet, it worked. In a year with a worsening economic situation, especially in industrial regions, Obama's uplifting and positive message struck a contrast to John Edwards' campaign's tone. Edwards' stump speech was full of sad stories. This writer agreed with his economic populism. But frankly, Edwards' narratives of failure were too depressing. Obama, on the other hand, spoke to bright horizons, of coming together and so forth.
And, so, Obama has won the nomination, perhaps studying and adopting the method of Carter.

Obama's speech last night also may have been the product of studying the strenghts and failures of Democratic presidential nominees since 1988. Obama's speech struck the right balance of policy substance and brevity. Too much policy specifics, and too much pondering would render him vulnerable the charge of being a dull bore, of coming across as academic. Think of Michael Dukakis, Al Gore and John Kerry. Obama, one could argue is a parallel to Bill Clinton, a bright politician, an astute student of history, yet someone that can keep the specifics to limited chunks and can focus on the folksy stories emphasizing family history and shared values --things that drive intellectuals batty. Terms limits keep us from having another Bill Clinton; but parallels in oration and campaign style have given us the closest parallel in a candidate.

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