A Fine Speech but a Wasted Convention

A Fine Speech but a Wasted Convention

By Toby Harnden - August 29, 2008

It was a fine speech. Beautifully crafted phrases that inspired, though they perhaps did not inform, floated high above the Doric columns on the stage at Invesco Field. At the same time, Barack Obama, his feet on the ground, delivered the meat and potatoes, reciting a checklist of the concerns of ordinary Americans who are hurting.

Much of it was Democratic boilerplate but he outlined plans, a few in detail. He talked, albeit vaguely, about how he would pay for some of them. And he attacked John McCain, witheringly. He was deft in intimating that the Arizona senator is an angry old codger, without quite saying that - McCain "doesn't get it" and it and lacks the right "temperament" for the White House.

The Illinois senator even showed some passion. A huge cheer went up around the stadium when his recitation of a litany of misdeeds under President George W. Bush ended with an emphatic: "Enough!" It seems a touch contrived (the exclamation mark was in the prepared text) and it was so uncharacteristic as to be slightly jarring. But he'd been urged to get angry and he made a decent go of appearing to be just that.

Trouble is, every nominee's acceptance address is the "biggest speech of his life". Every four years, the breathless build-up is duly followed by the punditocracy declaring that he hit a home run - though this time David Gergen's "it was less a speech than a symphony" might have raised a blush or two even at Obama HQ in Chicago.

We already knew, moreover, that Obama could give a fine speech. To a large extent, the McCain campaign, building on Hillary Clinton's "just words" and "one speech", has neutralized this powerful talent by turning it against him. By over-reaching in Berlin, the fine speechifying became a potential millstone for him.

Truth be told, the faux Greek temple looked more Vegas than Parthenon. The backdrop was probably designed to evoke the Lincoln memorial with perhaps a dash of West Wing thrown in. But once the fireworks had exploded from the structure and red, white and blue streamers were draped over it, it was sheer kitsch.

It was the first time a Democrat had accepted his party's nomination at an open air site since John F. Kennedy at the Memorial Coliseum in Los Angeles in 1960. No doubt the comparison was a conscious one when Invesco was chosen above the plain old 18,000-seat Pepsi Center.

Filling a stadium with more than 84,000 people is no mean feat but the whole event had the feel of a great idea if Obama had been holding a 12-point poll lead and looked to be cruising towards an easy victory in November. With the polls now tied and a dogfight with McCain beckoning it felt like a mistake.

The venue belied the most important - and new - part of his message, to "spell out exactly what that change would mean if I am President". Having the plans to help ordinary Americans is one thing but persuading them to believe you have the will and capacity to carry them out is another.

Obama's demeanor remains cool and aloof. Bill Clinton could feel people's pain. Obama who, as Michael Barone has pointed out, has spent his entire adult life living in university communities, appears to view people's pain with concerned detachment.

He went on the attack but obviously felt conflicted about doing so. His lofty pronouncement that "what I will not do is suggest that the Senator [McCain] takes his positions for political purposes" was either nonsensical or disingenuous. It felt like the former. Why else do Democrats think McCain has changed his positions?

Throughout the week, Democrats were far too polite towards John McCain. Yes, he's a war hero but, as Wesley Clark correctly if impoliticly pointed out, that doesn't in itself qualify him to be President, and there's no need to honor McCain's service every time his name is mentioned. On Wednesday, Joe Biden, with senatorial collegiality, kept calling him John (though he did him once with George) when McCain or McSame would have done fine.

Obama has allowed McCain to get under his skin and inside his head. He mentioned McCain 21 times in the speech. In 1988, George H. W. Bush didn't use the name Michael Dukakis once. In 2000, the words Al Gore crossed George W. Bush's lips precisely once. Yet Obama even stooped to mentioning McCain's most effective attack ad, bleating that "I don't know what kind of lives John McCain thinks that celebrities lead..."

The main benefit for Obama of speaking at Invesco was that it drew a line under the first three days of the convention which were dominated by the Clintons. Even at the point of the nomination by acclamation, the television image was of the former First Lady graciously deigning to grant the honor to the Young Pretender as chants of "Hillary, Hillary!" rang out around the arena.

Certainly, Senator Clinton did what she had to do in calling on her supporters to support her erstwhile rival. But it was a coldly logical endorsement. "Those are the reasons I ran for President," she said. "Those are the reasons I support Barack Obama. And those are the reasons you should too."

Bill did his bit with a more emotion and conviction but we knew that he could deliver an utterly insincere or untrue statement with feeling and believability. He needed to say it so he did and he did it well. But no one thought he actually believed it.

There wasn't a coherent message from the convention. Mark Warner's keynote was a bust - Paul Begala's reminder that this wasn't the Richmond Chamber of Commerce just about summed it up. McCain and Bush were hardly talked about during the first two days. It did genuinely feel like a surprise when Obama made his surprise appearance at the close of day three because before then so little of the proceedings had been about him.

The Clintons played the parts that fate had dictated they had to because they knew that another run in 2012 depended on them being good soldiers until November 4th. Obama gave a fine speech. But the convention did little to advance his candidacy and August was a month squandered by the newly-minted Democratic nominee.


Toby Harnden is the Washington bureau chief of The Sunday Times. You can follow him on Twitter here.

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