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Small Change From Obama

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By David S. Broder
Sunday, August 31, 2008

DENVER -- The Democrats had themselves a successful convention -- at the price of appearing quite conventional.

The delegates left here happy and enthused, believing that the divisive nomination fight was finally behind them. But their star, Barack Obama, on the climactic night of the conclave, gave an acceptance speech that was no match for the keynote address he delivered at the 2004 convention in Boston. Sen. Dick Durbin of Illinois, introducing his colleague again here, said that first one "changed politics in America."

That is hardly an exaggeration. People were talking about the 2004 speech -- with its powerful evocation of a national unity far beyond any partisan differences -- for weeks. I long ago lost count of the number of Obama volunteers who said they had signed up to support him after watching that address.

No one is likely to argue that the speech here "changed politics in America." His jibes at John McCain and George Bush were standard-issue Democratic fare, and his recital of a long list of domestic promises could have been delivered by any Democratic nominee from Walter Mondale to John Kerry.

There was no theme music to the speech and really no phrase or sentence that is likely to linger in the memory of any listener. The thing I never expected did in fact occur: Al Gore, the famously wooden former vice president, gave a more lively and convincing speech than Obama did.

If this were just an off night by a speaker we know can soar, it would be no more than a blip on the screen. Obama picked a bad night to be ordinary, given the huge crowd that filled the Denver Broncos' stadium and the elaborate Grecian setting constructed for his performance.

But John McCain is hardly a major threat as a speaker, so what's the difference?

Here's why I think it matters. One of the major questions about Obama, of whom so little is known, is whether he is really serious about challenging the partisan gridlock in Washington or whether his election would simply bring on the regular wish list of liberal policies.

His Boston speech -- and many others early in this campaign -- suggested that he was sincere in wanting to tamp down partisanship and would be creative enough to see the need for enlisting bright people from both parties in confronting the nation's problems.

But the Denver speech, like many others he has given recently, subordinated any talk of fundamental systemic change to a checklist of traditional Democratic programs.

Obama's disappointing speech also reflected what I had thought was the one conspicuous failure of the convention program -- the missed opportunity to introduce the country to others in the younger generation of Democrats than just Obama and his dazzling wife, Michelle.

The convention hall was full of bright, attractive men and women serving as governors or mayors or in other posts. Obama knows many of them from his campaign travels, and he gave the keynote spot to one of them, Virginia's Mark Warner.


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