The speech was better in that it had some specifics in it, some mentions of what Democrats intend to do. The 2004 keynote, in comparison, was almost all bipartisan feel-good, see we're really not all that different, unity stuff. Even so, it was a more effective speech because shorter, more focused and free to evoke rather than spell out. That is not a criticism of either speech because the tone and topic of each reflect the different task set before it and the kinds of expectations attached to those tasks.
BTD thinks Obama's speech tonight succeeded. I disagree, though I would not go so far as to say it failed. I think it held ground and was sufficient for the occasion, but it was, at base, deeply incoherent. The lack of internal agreement in the speech points to the incoherence of the anti-Clinton leadership because it reflects some of the deep contradictions of what I have been calling the Stevensonian elite in the Democratic party. It seems my coinage of "Stevensonian" is catching on in the outer 'burbs of the blogosphere, though there's been too simple of a dichotomy made from what I've been trying to describe. Stevensonian =/= "bad" and Truman =/= "good", and at this point there is not a single party leader of any status who isn't more Stevensonian than Truman. The question is where is the balancing point for the party and its candidates between these two modes of political life? Puzzling this out is what drives my political thinking. Obama's success or failure in the GE will hinge on whether he can find this balance. The speech tonight was not reassuring.
The speech breaks down into three parts. The first part was the best from a partisan standpoint, and was a solid, if standard, Dem acceptance speech. He thanked all the right people in all the right measure. He praised the country and the voters. He told stories of people. The best parts were taken wholesale from Hillary and Bill's speeches and that's a good thing. The single best line from it (in my opinion was this: "Well, it's time for them [Republicans] to own their failure. It's time for us to change America." Why is this so good? Because it talks about being responsible for outcomes, and tying political ideology to political failure. The Republicans are the cause of this failure, and we need to change that by tossing them out.
The stories tying his own life to what he heard on the campaign trail was nicely done, though I agree with a few commenters that the people he described are all generic types, not the specific people Hillary spoke of. I myself am uncomfortable at attempts by any politician to make claims about their own authenticity or common touch by comparing themselves to "regular" people, so the stories in the end did not work for me, but I can see how they would appeal to others. So, that stuff is a wash with me, but standard political theater.
The second part was also a standard part of any political convention speech, the inevitable laundry list of policies, plans and ideas that serve as shorthand for what the candidate and the party intend to do once in office. You can make these things killingly dull, but I'm not sure anyone can make them sparkle. It was the dullest point in Hillary's speech on Monday, too, when she ran down the list, so I'll give him a nod on that one. I don't look for specific policies in such things (I just go to the web site... ) and look at it more as a recitation of talking points.
Where the speech lost its way was the part that probably has Chris Matthews tingling all over, the third part where he slipped back into his stump speech and reverted to finger wagging at politicians as such, ignoring the lessons handed to him by the masters on Tuesday and Wednesday. It made no sense, given the political times and his own VP selection. It stood in direct contradiction to the opening, where he finally seemed to accept that he has to campaign as a Democrat.
It is almost unfair to make this speech stand up to the artistry of Bill's presentation yesterday, beacuse there is no better speaker in politics today than Bill Clinton, but it is only through these comparisons that we can see where the party needs to go and how it needs to position itself to capitalize on the weakness of the Right. Bill distilled this election and the fundamental ground of political difference into two sentences:
But on the two great questions of this election, how to rebuild the American dream and how to restore America's leadership in the world, [McCain] still embraces the extreme philosophy which has defined his party for more than 25 years, a philosophy we never had a real chance to see in action until 2001, when the Republicans finally gained control of both the White House and Congress. Then we saw what would happen to America if the policies they had talked about for decades were implemented.This is an incredible statement. In two sentences, he distilled all of the best political and econmic writings of the Left for the past two decades and applied all of the political history and wisdom since Watergate to make clear why the Republicans, as a party and an ideology, must be removed. Here are the issues - domestic prosperity and international stability - and we are in such dire shape now because of the damage the Republicans have inflicted on the nation once they got their way. Clinton made it clear that the source of our woes was the extremist rule of the other party, and that they must be removed, no matter how much we might personally like this or that particular Republican. It was a necessary move away from the drive to personalize politics, which is always a trap for Democrats, by talking about a philosophy of rule that leads to personal and national impoverishment.
Bill knows that trying to tie McCain to Bush won't work. Gore and Kerry both lost running campaigns about being better than the other guy, because the other guy can and will (with the full complicity of the MSM, as the Incomparable Bob Somerby reminds us) trample our goodness into the ground. What the Big Dog did, what Hillary did, was tie both McCain and Bush to the fucked up political philosophy of the Right. They made the argument about more than a single administration - it is against the Republicans as such, from Reagan forward.
Hillary and Bill can deliver these kinds of speeches that go hammer and tongs after the Republicans, speeches that resonate with the core of the party, because they don't feel the need to capitulate on being Democrats. There is no nod to bipartisanship just for its own sake. Struggles in Washington are not always bad if what you are fighting is the pillaging of the nation and an assualt on our basic liberties. They are as partisan as the moment will allow, and now is the time to go all out. What the anti-Clinton faction can't figure out (or won't cop to) is that Bill and Hillary have moved on from the embattled times of the Movement Conservative ascendency and are pushing a significantly more hard-nosed and tough approach to politics (Hillary even more than Bill) than you hear form the rest of the party, which is seems stuck in a timewarp from 14 years ago.
The spousal unit reminded me of an article we read in the Village Voice back in 1992 when we were ardent Jerry Brown supporters. (Side note - Hubby was at a campaign rally for Jerry in Washington Square Park. Jerry was running late as usual. Really late. Carly Simon was there and sang an a capella version of Anticipation. Talk about music suited to the occasion.) It made us sit up and take notice of this fellow from Arkansas. Bill Clinton was asked what he thought of Britain's Labor Party's thrashing in the most recent elections (This was under Kinnock, the party head Joe Biden plagiarized). Bill replied that Labor had not gone as far as the Social Democrats at Bad-Godesberg. Whoa. That made a pair of political scientists sit back and take notice. How bizarre that an American politician was so aware of the European Left, and waas thinking ahead of how to make a Center Left party work.
It is this attention to the operations of power and long-view political strategy that creates conditions for success that go beyond a single election round. This is what Krugman has chronicled about the Movement Conservatives. The Clintons have given a lifetime of study and practice of how to do liberal politics under adverse conditions. What are the compromises to make and why? What will set you up for a stronger move the next time your turn comes up? How do you get to the point where the Left can act?
Listening to the current Democratic leadership, reading the triumphalism on the fauxgressive blogs, and particularly hearing the drumbeat for "bipartisanship", I want to shake these fools out of their inability to recognize what has happened to the country over the last quarter century (actually longer, since Nixon forward). Here were the least palatable parts of tonight's speech:
The challenges we face require tough choices, and Democrats as well as Republicans will need to cast off the worn-out ideas and politics of the past. For part of what has been lost these past eight years can't just be measured by lost wages or bigger trade deficits. What has also been lost is our sense of common purpose our sense of higher purpose. ...
And you know what it's worked before. Because it feeds into the cynicism we all have about government. When Washington doesn't work, all its promises seem empty. If your hopes have been dashed again and again, then it's best to stop hoping, and settle for what you already know. ...
For eighteen long months, you have stood up, one by one, and said enough to the politics of the past. You understand that in this election, the greatest risk we can take is to try the same old politics with the same old players and expect a different result. You have shown what history teaches us that at defining moments like this one, the change we need doesn't come from Washington. Change comes to Washington. Change happens because the American people demand it, because they rise up and insist on new ideas and new leadership, a new politics for a new time.
For 40 years, since 1968, the American political landscape has been dominated by the most compact, fanatical, ideologically radical party in the West today. They have brutalized their opponents and despoiled the nation. The crises of our nation (vs. some rather pedestrian political screw ups) have been caused by this group that simply does not agree that we should be a democratic nation. This is not "gridlock" - this is political survival. They have over-reached and now is the time to seize a political opportunity.
From the langauge I have heard through the campaign season and particularly in the last few days, this group is quite cheerfully positioning itself in a weaker position than the Clintons took in 1992, when it seemed impossible that anything could stop the Reagan Revolution juggernaut. They have eagerly taken on the superficial trappings of the Right - pandering to religious kooks, backing down on civil rights, abandoning even the pretense of social and economic equity, flatly saying they will not entertain an ambitious health care reform plan - and have no sense of the depth of change they could accomplish if they would trust to their own party's philosophy.
The speech was all surface and ended by denying its own opening claims, cutting off its deepest, strongest roots.