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The Devils in His Details

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By George F. Will
Thursday, August 28, 2008

DENVER -- When Barack Obama feeds rhetorical fishes and loaves to the multitudes in the football stadium tonight, he should deliver a message of sufficient particularity that it seems particularly suited to Americans. One more inspirational oration, one general enough to please Berliners or even his fellow "citizens of the world," will confirm Pascal's point that "continuous eloquence wearies." That is so because it is not really eloquent. If it is continuous, it is necessarily formulaic and abstract, vague enough for any time and place, hence truly apposite for none.

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If Socrates had engaged in an interminable presidential campaign in a media-drenched age, perhaps he, too, would have come to seem banal. But the fact that Obama lost nine of the final 14 primaries might have something to do with the fact that when he descends from the ether to practicalities, he reprises liberalism's most shopworn nostrums.

Russia, a Third World nation with First World missiles, is rampant; Iran is developing a missile inventory capable of delivering nuclear weapons the development of which will not be halted by Obama's promised "aggressive personal diplomacy." Yet Obama has vowed to "cut investments in unproven missile defense systems." Steamboats, railroads, airplanes and vaccines were "unproven" until farsighted people made investments. Furthermore, as Reuel Marc Gerecht of the American Enterprise Institute notes, Democrats will eventually embrace missile defense in Europe because they "will have nowhere else to go short of pre-emptive strikes against Iran's nuclear facilities."

Obama, who might be the last person to learn that schools' cognitive outputs are not simply functions of financial inputs, promises more money for teachers, who, as usual, are about 10 percent of the Democrats' convention delegates and alternates. He waxes indignant about approximately 150,000 jobs sent overseas each year -- less than 1 percent of the number of jobs normally lost and gained in the creative destruction of America's dynamic economy. U.S. exports are fending off a recession while he complains about free trade. He deplores NAFTA, although since it was implemented in 1994, the U.S., Mexican and Canadian economies have grown 50 percent, 46 percent and 54 percent, respectively.

Recycling George McGovern's 1972 "Demogrant" notion, Obama promises a $1,000 check for every family, financed by a "windfall profits" tax on oil companies. Obama is unintimidated by the rule against legislating about subjects one cannot define.

Obama thinks government is not getting a "reasonable share" of oil companies' profits, which in 2007 were, as a percentage of revenue (8.3 percent), below those of U.S. manufacturing generally (8.9 percent). Exxon Mobil pays almost as much in corporate taxes to various governments as the bottom 50 percent of American earners pay in income taxes. Exxon Mobil does make $1,400 a second in profits -- hear the sharp intakes of breath from liberals with pursed lips -- but pays $4,000 a second in taxes and $15,000 a second in operating costs.

Obama's rhetorical extravagances are inversely proportional to his details, as when he promises "nothing less than a complete transformation of our economy" in order to "end the age of oil." The diminished enthusiasm of some voters hitherto receptive to his appeals might have something to do with the seepage of reality from his rhetoric. Voters understand that neither the "transformation" nor the "end" will or should occur. His dreamy certitude that "alternative" fuels will quickly become real alternatives is an energy policy akin to an old vaudeville joke: "If we had some eggs, we could have ham and eggs, if we had some ham."

When he speaks tonight in a venue consecrated to the faux combat of football, the NATO alliance, which was 12 years old when he was born, may be collapsing because of its unwillingness to help enough in Afghanistan and its inability to respond seriously to Russia's combat in Georgia. It is unfair to neither NATO nor Obama to note that the alliance is practicing what he preaches: It is preaching to Vladimir Putin, who is unimpressed. NATO, said Lord Ismay, speaking of Europe in 1949, was created to "keep the Americans in, the Germans down and the Russians out." That Germany's appeasement reflex is part of NATO's weakness is perhaps progress, of sorts.

Journalism often must be preoccupied with matters barely remembered a week later. But decades hence, historians will write about today's response to Russia by the West, perhaps in obituaries for the idea of "the West." If Obama does not speak to this crisis tonight, that will speak volumes.

georgewill@washpost.com


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