The Message From Denver

Friday, August 29, 2008

FOR ALL THE talk of watershed and history, the themes that Democrats presented to America at the convention that ended yesterday, and that they hope will carry them back to the White House, aren't all that different from the arguments they made to the nation in 2004. At home, they told the country, they will be the champions of the middle class while the Republicans defend the wealthy and the corporate interests. Abroad, they will replace dangerous adventurism with strong but prudent diplomacy and alliance-building, using force only as a last resort.

But in Barack Obama, the Democrats have a charismatic candidate well positioned to offer himself as a new-generation embodiment of change. The momentous accomplishment of his becoming the first African American presidential nominee -- one who barely edged out a candidate who would have been the first female nominee -- cannot be overstated. If many of the notes Mr. Obama sounded last night sounded familiar, that is neither surprising nor necessarily problematic. The economy is in significantly worse shape than it was four years ago; income inequality has grown; health-care costs have continued to soar; energy prices have risen; and the Bush administration has frittered away its chances to address the problems of global warming. And Mr. Obama's policy prescriptions go further on each of these fronts than did John F. Kerry's four years ago. He would cut taxes more for the middle class; go further to provide health insurance; and spend more on alternative energy sources while pursuing a cap-and-trade regime for greenhouse gases. Indeed, many of his proposals fell into the category of pleasing promises that will be difficult to make real: ending dependence on Middle East oil in 10 years, for example, or giving almost every American a tax cut without worsening the deficit.

Making a case that he would be the superior commander in chief, Mr. Obama caricatured Mr. McCain as a bellicose adventurer "grasping at the ideas of the past." John McCain, he charged, "stands alone in his stubborn refusal to end a misguided war." Actually, Mr. Obama stands -- unfortunately, not alone -- in his stubborn refusal to acknowledge that improvements on the ground in Iraq were fostered by the surge that Mr. McCain urged and that Mr. Obama opposed. But Mr. Obama left no doubt of his commitment, one that we share, to vigorous international engagement, the fight against terrorism and the urgency of promoting prosperity in the developing world.

Mr. Obama ended his speech last night with a stirring reprise of his call to end old-style politics. He called for finding common ground on divisive issues such as abortion, immigration and gay rights, and he derided the use of "stale tactics to scare the voters." These lofty sentiments were undercut by the fact that Mr. Obama did not exactly shy away from what he called "this same partisan playbook." He was unfair in claiming that Mr. McCain defines "middle-class as someone making under five million dollars a year" and has proposed "a plan that would privatize Social Security."

A chief goal of the Democrats was to highlight the stark contrasts in the parties' political visions, and in this they succeeded. Mr. Obama presented a pretty clear view of where he would lead the nation; others, most prominently former president Bill Clinton, argued that he was capable of doing so. In St. Paul, the Republicans will get their turn to rebut the Democrats and argue that they are entitled to another four years.

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