If politics is sport, and the presidential election the Super Bowl, then I suspect that we just hit the TSN turning point of the game. When all is said and done this November, when the balloons fall on one side and the sadness befalls the other, I somehow feel like people will look back to the past 24 hours as the most important moments in this election.
If I may extend the football metaphor, both teams just launched their most significant offensive plays of the game so far. One play was an impressive running play, a candidate continuing a steady-but-successful strategy to continue moving the ball downfield. The other was a desperate Hail Mary pass, a bold move that’s risky as all hell but with great potential reward. That they were both historic only reinforces just how big and eventful these past 24 hours have been.
I’ve got more to say about the Hail Mary than the running play, since it’s a much more ambitious play with a lot more questions alongside. But I want to explore them both, starting with Obama’s speech in front of 85,000 people at Invesco Field.
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Obama’s momentous, history-making acceptance address wasn’t my favourite of his iconic speeches, but it might have been his most accomplished to date, both difficult to write and even more challenging to deliver.
You can tell that playing the attack dog or explaining policy details is not where Obama feels most at home rhetorically. His comfort zone has always been in exploring the philosophies, morals and values that inform and shape those policies and guide his stabs at the other side of the isle. Frankly, he’s not unlike Ronald Reagan in this regard. Nearly every one Obama’s best speeches – the 2004 convention keynote, the Philadelphia race address, his Iowa victory speech – stick to the big picture and only briefly dive into the trenches.
Fine by me, frankly. There are few things more snore-inducing than hearing a list of policies that I can easily check out at the candidate’s website, and few tactics more predictable than a series of stock one-liners attacking an opponent. And yet, Obama had to hit both these notes in his convention speech to tackle two common criticisms of his campaign thus far: that he is unwilling to defend himself against McCain’s attacks and that he isn’t spelling out the details of what “change” is going to mean to the American voter. In attempting to address these concerns while still hitting his key ‘big picture’ arguments, Obama’s speech felt a bit disjointed and less precise than his greatest hits reel.
But that’s not to say that there wasn’t anything to love. The speech may have been unwieldy because it was attempting to provide something for everyone, but I genuinely believe that he may have accomplished that goal. Progressives worried about another John Kerry got some of the sharpest attacks against McCain from any Democrat this convention. Detail junkies got a litany of policies that an Obama administration would pursue. And people like me looking for Obama’s philosophy of governance got more than we might have expected, frankly.
The speech was a great example of how sometimes the best defense is a good offense. Look at how Obama systematically dealt with nearly every attack the McCain camp has thrown at him. On experience, he offered a direct challenge to Republican foreign policy. On celebrity, he gave an explication of his personal heroes that have shaped his life, from his mother to his grandparents. On patriotism, he boldly made clear that “we all put our country first.”
Some conservative commentators have attacked Obama’s policy outline as being typical liberal boilerplate, but they miss the forest for the trees. Obama isn’t just arguing for progressive policies; he’s mapping out a philosophical and moral case for progressivism as a guiding philosophy for the nation, one ideologically consistent with the American dream. He believes that government can act as a vehicle for bringing people together to find collective solutions that better the lives of all, allowing individuals to realize their ambitions. And he’s explaining this not in high-level academic terms, but in words, stories and examples familiar and relatable to Americans from all walks of life.
This is bold stuff, and a complete shift from the past two decades of Democratic leadership. For too long, Democrats have chosen to attack the excesses of Republican conservatism instead of the flaws at its very foundation. For months now Democrats have been fairly successful in linking McCain with George W. Bush, but Obama went further last night: he linked both of them with the entire Republican party and conservatism broadly. This isn’t just about a single man, or even a handful of politicians in Washington. This is about an ideology that has reached its ugly zenith, and Obama is making the case for a new progressive movement for a 21st century to guide America through the challenges ahead.
Whether Obama will represent true change in government policy remains to be seen. But change in the national dialogue? Absolutely.
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I had first heard Sarah Palin’s name floated as a VP contender a month or so ago, but only as a footnote among a bunch of other names and I never really gave her much thought. Her transition from unknown to the likely candidate only happened this morning, and it happened fast. As an Obama supporter, my reaction was an awkward transition from dread through contentment before finally ending up with pure uncertainty. As a political junkie, though, I was – and remain – captivated by McCain’s decision.
The goal of the Palin choice is pretty obvious: reinforce the base while targeting female independents and disillusioned Hillary Clinton voters. So many of the names thrown around as VP candidates – Lieberman, Romney, Ridge – threatened to be ideological landmines to Republicans on various social issues. Someone like Pawlenty met the litmus tests but would be boring as stale bread, especially when put up against a firecracker like Joe Biden. With Palin, McCain gets a devoted social conservative whose energy policies are well-suited to what’s becoming an economy-focused election. Plus, she’s young, attractive and the first female to ever grace a Republican ticket. She’s genuinely exciting, and theMcCain campaign hopes she will finally generate some enthusiasm for their ticket this November.
But mostly, Palin is a deliberate attempt to cut into the Democrats’ advantage among women voters. In 2000, Gore beat Bush by 10 points among female voters. In 2004, Bush closed that gap but still lost women to Kerry by 7 points. Now we’re heading into another close election, one where the ground game and the national mood significantly favors the Democrat, as I explained earlier this week. With the knowledge that a good quarter of Hillary Clinton voters are thinking of supporting McCain, and a number more undecided, the McCain campaign smells an opportunity to change the dynamics of this election and close the gender gap between the parties.
So far, so good – you can see why an Obama supporter like me would initially be worried about such a scenario. If Palin succeeds in exciting the Republican base and significantly closing the gender gap, Obama’s structural advantages this election becomes moot. But after the initial shock value of the choice, the cracks in the plan begin to show.
Palin’s inexperience – a two-year governor with no foreign policy experience at all – is where most critics are focusing their attention, but it’s symptomatic of a larger problem. McCain’s brand is based on authenticity, on putting principle ahead of politics, and he just made a vice-president selection that is nakedly, vacantly political. Both NBC and CNN are reporting today that prior to this week – as the selection process was winding down – McCain and Palin had met JUST ONCE, back in February. John McCain is willing to trust the White House to someone he barely knows? What kind of judgement is that?
Already, both Democrats and the media’s talking heads are looking at Palin’s paltry credentials and drawing an obvious conclusion: McCain is more concerned with winning the election than he is in picking someone who is qualified to step in and serve as president should something happen to him (the fact that he made his selection on his 72nd birthday only underscores that point). That’s a very dangerous meme for McCain if it catches on. It threatens his brand, it looks reckless as all hell and it especially compares poorly to Obama’s choice of Biden as his running mate. Has Palin ever sat across the table from a war criminal and called them such to their face?
(Obama hasn’t either, I know, and after watching McCain’s spokespuppet on Larry King that’s clearly part of their strategy with Palin: every time the Dems bring up her inexperience, the Republicans will pivot and argue that she has more experience than Obama. Nevermind how misleading this is – does it suggest that McCain’s is willing to put a wholly underqualified person on his ticket just to one-up his opponent?)
The other big problem with the McCain/Palin ticket didn’t become clear until the two spoke at their rally earlier today. Nevermind the awkward celebration of Hillary Clinton, where the partisan crowd didn’t know whether to cheer or boo. Check out the language the two used to describe their campaign:
McCain: I found someone with an outstanding reputation for standing up to special interests and entrenched bureaucracies; someone who has fought against corruption and the failed policies of the past.
Palin: Along with fellow reformers in the great state of Alaska, as governor I stood up to the old politics as usual, to the special interests, to the lobbyists, the big oil companies, and the good old boy network.
Palin: The next 67 days, I’m going to take our campaign to every part of our country and our message of reform to every voter of every background in every political party or no party at all. If you want change in Washington, if you hope for a better America, then we’re asking for your vote on the 4th of November.
What the hell? Take out the word “Alaska” and you’d swear that this was an Obama/Biden rally. I went through the entire transcript and the word “experience” was only used once, when talking about Palin’s time as governor.
This is a huge shift. John McCain has spent months defining this election with two broad themes: McCain’s biography (mostly concerning foreign policy) and Obama’s inexperience. Every commercial, every interview, every talking point embodied these two ideas. But McCain chooses Palin and now the entire game moves in a new direction. Now the campaign is about reform, about ending politics as usual, about change. Yes, CHANGE – a word synonymous with Barack Obama.
Marketing hinges on the idea of competitive differentiation: how is your product different from the other products on the market? The way you do this is either by explaining that your product does something different than your competitors or saying how your product does what they do but better. For the first half of this campaign, McCain has been trying to explain how different he is than Obama, with experience as the key point. Now, though, he’s going to try and argue that McCain/Palin is a “change” ticket, just like Obama/Biden, but one better able to actually deliver change.
This seems unbelievably short-sighted to me. McCain is moving to a “change” narrative with two months left until the election. In contrast, the Obama campaign has spent a YEAR defining their candidate as the candidate of change, and poll after poll shows that identification has stuck. Hell, the Democrats just had a successful convention where every single speech argued that Obama represented “change” and McCain represented “more of the same.” Product Obama owns change; Product McCain only wants to. And McCain threatens to remind voters of that fact every time he tries to co-opt that theme for himself.
But maybe this is McCain’s only choice. Maybe he’s come to realize that experience isn’t going to beat change this election. Maybe he’s wary of how his connection to the Bush administration is hurting his poll numbers. Or maybe he’s barely thought this through and is just flat-out desperate to try something bold for the sake of something bold. I don’t know.
A vision for progressive change. A vision for conservative change. Something’s gotta give. We at are a turning point in this campaign, my friends, but it will take some time before we figure out which direction we’re going.
Edit: Some more insight into McCain’s decision from ABC news. It seems that Palin is a substitute for McCain’s first choice: former Democratic VP nominee Joe Lieberman, a close friend who he felt would “shake up the ticket.” McCain’s advisors convinced him that Lieberman would cause revolt among the Republican base, but the candidate felt his other options (Pawlenty, Romney, Ridge) lacked the same political spark. Hence, the decision to go with the lesser-known Palin.