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Obama The Orthodox

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Barack Obama delivered an acceptance speech Thursday to close the Democratic National Convention.Video: AP, Editor: Jacqueline Refo/washingtonpost.com

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By Michael Gerson
Saturday, August 30, 2008

The setting invited comparisons to John F. Kennedy. The anniversary invited comparisons to Martin Luther King Jr. The stage invited comparisons to Zeus.

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The remarks themselves invited comparisons to every Democratic stump speech of the past 20 years.

In substance, Barack Obama's convention speech could easily have been given by Al Gore or John Kerry -- and, in various forms, was given by Kerry and Gore. It was all in there: the lunchbox economic populism -- based on the assumption that most Americans are filling their lunchboxes with scraps from Dumpsters. The attacks on corporations, millionaires and other sinister job creators. The touching faith in the power of diplomacy.

This is not to say that these themes are ineffective -- both Gore and Kerry almost became president with them. And these nominees did not possess even half of Obama's political skills.

In tone, Obama's big speech was small, partisan, often defensive and occasionally snide. "I've got news for you, John McCain," he exclaimed. "We all put our country first." It was a pattern for the night: I'm not weak -- you are the one who hasn't killed bin Laden with your bare hands. I'm not inexperienced -- you are the one who is old and out of touch. None of this assault was made with grace or wit.

And some of the attacks were simply unfair. Is it really credible to blame McCain for a tripling of oil imports during his time as senator? What does it mean that McCain "won't even follow [bin Laden] to the cave where he lives" -- that McCain is cowardly? that he knows where bin Laden hides, and won't tell the rest of us? that he doesn't believe in fighting al-Qaeda?

In craft, Obama's speech was aggressively unexceptional, as if he set out to be unmemorable. The applause lines were generally flat: "Enough!" "We are a better country than this!" There was little effective humor. Ronald Reagan drew lines from Clint Eastwood movies: "Go ahead, make my day." Obama drew his tag line -- "Eight is enough" -- from a 1970s TV show. (The song, you might remember, goes, "Eight is enough to fill our lives with love.")

In delivery, of course, Obama was masterfully confident -- which increasingly seems like the self-assurance of a man who believes mainly in himself.

By the last firework of the Democratic convention, Obama's transformation was complete. He had systematically taken the advice of every cynical, hard-edged Democratic political consultant. Get rid of the airy, cerebral rhetoric. Pitch your message to the focus groups, not the historians. Go for the old man's jugular.

In the process, opportunities were lost. Obama said nothing interesting about race in America at a moment when that might have been expected. He made no serious effort to reach out to religious conservatives, something that now seems more like a ploy than a project. He offered no creative policy proposals that might transcend partisan divisions. In fact, his message ran with perfect smoothness along old partisan grooves. That is genuinely disappointing. A Democrat who wins in this fashion will be unable to rein in the inevitable excesses of the Democratic Congress. And the inevitable counter-reaction of Republicans will leave Washington, once again, a World War I battlefield of trenches and grudges.

Some illusions have also been lost. For many Americans, the exciting young candidate who won the Iowa caucuses had the promise of being a new kind of politician entirely -- better than and different from the political norm of bitterness and calculation. Those hopes now seem -- in the words of a famous Democrat -- like a "fairy tale." In this convention, Obama "matured" into the spitting image of the typical Democratic politician. And this raises a question about Obama himself. Between Iowa and Denver there is little consistency except talent and ambition. Is there anything more to this candidate than talent and ambition?

It is the conventional wisdom that this transformation is politically brilliant: In an election year of massive voter discontent, a Democrat who sounds like a Democrat will surely win.

That may be correct. But Obama seems determined to test the theory in full. The Democratic ticket consists of two of the most ideological liberals in the U.S. Senate. It includes no reasonable governor, no candidate with Southern roots, no member with a military background (for the first time in decades). And now it offers the purest message of partisan aggression and class resentment.

Let the depressing battle begin.

michaelgerson@cfr.org


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