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September 1, 2008

Obama Delivers a Different Big Speech


Heading into the final night of last week’s Democratic National Convention, perhaps the biggest criticism leveled at the Democrats was that they hadn’t gotten tough enough on John McCain. While not quite taking the hands-off, no-negativity approach of their 2004 convention, the Dems hadn’t done enough to show McCain unfit for the presidency.


They hadn’t “gutted” McCain, hadn’t done enough to remind voters of the worst offenses of Bush-Cheney, certainly not to the level to which the Republicans will certainly have no qualms about attacking Obama next week. Who would step up to the plate to draw the necessary contrasts, and truly get tough against the opposition in a manner to which Democrats have fallen short the last few cycles?


Barack Obama, to paraphrase one of his many slogans, was the attack dog we’d been waiting for.


His acceptance speech, delivered outdoors in front of more than 70,000 at Denver’s Invesco Field, was an excellent one – but also significantly different from every one of Obama’s “great speeches” of the past. Obama’s famed 2004 convention address, his victory speeches after the Iowa caucus and South Carolina primary, his Philadelphia “race speech” and others, were marked by the candidate’s masterful, soaring rhetoric. In Denver, this style was there, especially at the beginning and end.


But Obama’s speech was really three speeches. The first was the familiar, beautiful rhetoric. The second was a “laundry list” of specific policy proposals, reminiscent of convention and State of the Union addresses during Bill Clinton’s presidency. And the third was a very forceful and very authoritative denunciation of the Bush-Cheney legacy, and of McCain’s intention to continue with key parts of it.


The third part was the most surprising. Not only did Obama go further in his criticisms of both his opponent and the current president than I’d ever seen him do before, but he was also much stronger in his denunciations of the GOP than any other speaker all week. Sure, several speakers, led by vice-presidential nominee Joseph Biden and 2004 nominee John Kerry, devoted much of their remarks to attacking the Republicans. But from Katrina to the mortgage crisis to the failure to catch Bin Laden, Obama was out front on GOP failures more than anyone else in Denver.


The convention had gotten off to a somewhat sluggish start, with very underwhelming speeches on the first two nights by Nancy Pelosi, Bob Casey and (especially) keynoter Mark Warner, who did all but put the live audience to sleep.


But the convention found its voice, first with Michelle Obama’s remarkable address and Ted Kennedy’s surprise appearance on the first night, through the effective and necessary speeches by both Clintons, a rip-roaring talk on energy from Montana Gov. Brian Schweitzer and finally a set of remarks from Kerry – much more tough, authoritative and defiant than anything he said on the trail in his entire 2004 run.


Sure, Biden’s vice-presidential acceptance speech was somewhat lackluster, while Al Gore sped through one of his worst speeches ever on Thursday night. But with Obama’s speech combined with those listed above, this was undoubtedly the best collection of addresses at a Democratic convention in recent memory.


For the convention’s first three days, anyway, the dual questions of the state of the Obama-Clinton relationship and whether Hillary voters would support Obama, all but dominated on-air discussion. Yes, I realize MSNBC and Fox and the rest had lots of hours to fill, but the commentators felt the need to devote roughly 80 percent of their airtime to the subject. I felt especially sorry for anyone who dared show up to the convention while wearing a Hillary button. Not because their candidate lost, but because they likely had to dodge reporters and cameras running toward them for the entire week.


The Democrats have shown throughout this election cycle that they have learned the lessons of their failures of the recent past. They picked the right candidate, appear to have smoothed over many of the hard feelings of the primaries, and have now run a (mostly) strong convention, culminating the spectacle of Obama’s stadium speech. Is the election over? Of course not. But as we enter September, the Democrats are in their best shape in years.


© 2008 North Star Writers Group. May not be republished without permission.


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