Barack Obama certainly had the nation’s attention last night, having moved his speech from the Pepsi Center to an elaborate setting at Invesco Field. He had history on his side in two separate ways, both with his own nomination as the first African-American candidate on a major-party ticket and the 45th anniversary of Martin Luther King’s “I Have a Dream” speech. Obama had the chance to reach beyond his previous efforts and close the deal with middle America.
Instead, Obama essentially mailed in his usual stump speech. While people waited to hear specifics, Obama only offered slogans. Meanwhile, he threw in the same attacks that his campaign has made for the last four weeks against John McCain and offered more bluster about having a debate on foreign policy, national security, and patriotism without agreeing to actually meet McCain to do it.
Ramesh Ponnuru sums it up well:
If all you knew of Obama was what he presented to you in his speech, you would think of him as a typical Democratic politician improved by the addition of a bit more thoughtfulness and idealism than the average representative of the class. You would be amazed to learn of his extremely close relationship to a radical anti-American preacher; or that he has followed a no-enemies-to-the-left approach to politics that put him in the company of an unrepentant terrorist. You would not suspect that he favors taxpayer-funded abortion or drivers’ licenses for illegal immigrants. You would not realize that he has crossed party lines far less often than McCain. You would not imagine that he had ever voted against funding for troops in war zones. It would not cross your mind that this denouncer of hardball, self-interested politics might be having his campaign intimidate reporters out of looking into his record.
Obama was less successful in making the case for himself on foreign policy, but no less dishonest. He did not acknowledge the success or even the existence of the surge. He presented McCain as the lone holdout against a consensus on withdrawal from Iraq that includes President Bush. If he had had his way, we would have been out of Iraq a long time ago and the country would be in far worse shape — but by presenting a timeline of the Iraq debate that excludes the last two years, he kept all but the most attentive listeners from noticing.
The senator argued that we should be able to disagree on political issues without questioning each other’s character. True. But he concludes that we should therefore ignore the evidence that he has, in fact, adopted the foreign-policy positions he has for political reasons. He acts as though he is being gracious by not leveling a like charge against McCain. But it is no concession to declare off limits an accusation that applies to you and not your opponent.
Obama made the same mistake that plagued the entire Democratic convention; he ran against George Bush. He railed about the previous eight years, which certainly is de rigeur for the party out of the White House, but failed to present any clear idea of what different policies he would apply. He did almost nothing to present any specific, positive plan for the American people beyond the sloganeering to which Obama has bitterly clung while his polling has dropped by double digits this summer
Worse than that, Obama misrepresented McCain’s record on several points. He ridiculed McCain for not following Osama bin Laden “to his cave”, when even his own running mate stated on the record that invading Pakistan in force would be rather foolish. (McCain also doesn’t have the authority to order that, and Obama put it in the past tense.) Obama repeated the accusation that McCain is just another Bush on energy policy, but it was Obama who voted for the Bush energy bill in 2005, and McCain who voted against it. In fact, while McCain has voted with his party 88% of the time, Obama has voted with his party 97% of the time over the last three years — and has almost no record of taking risks in pursuit of bipartisan solutions at any level of legislating.
Oddly, Obama only made passing reference to Dr. King’s speech, with a throwaway line in the closing moments. Why not talk more about that moment and tie himself to it?
In the end, this was an opportunity lost, both by Obama and by his party. Democrats had the chance to show America that they had grown beyond their obsession with George Bush and had a positive, rational plan to govern. Instead, they essentially ran a re-run of their 2004 convention and forgot that Bush will retire in five months, not four, as some of their mathematically-challenged speakers stated. Obama will get his bump — and it will prove as transitory as his summer popularity.
Update: “Did you watch the speech? How can you say it had no specifics?” Yes, I watched the speech — I wouldn’t write about it as though I had if I hadn’t. As far as specifics, let me allow Charles Babbington of the Associated Press to make the point:
Obama’s aides have long complained that he gets too little credit for including detailed proposals in his stump speeches, because listeners seem to remember only his stage presence and lofty rhetoric. Obama, who earlier had promised a “workmanlike” speech in Denver, seemed to acknowledge the problem, saying he would fill in the blanks.
Mostly, however, he touched on major issues quickly and lightly. It’s an approach that may intrigue and satisfy millions of viewers just starting to tune in to the campaign seriously. The crowd at Invesco Field cheered deliriously, but Republicans almost surely will decry the lack of specifics.
For instance, Obama said it’s time “to protect Social Security for future generations.” But he didn’t mention his main proposal, which is to add a new Social Security payroll tax to incomes above $250,000 a year.
He said he would “cut taxes for 95 percent of all working families,” but did not say how.
He briefly mentioned abortion, gun rights, gay rights and other hot-button issues without delving into their sticky details. “Passions fly on immigration,” Obama said, “but I don’t know anyone who benefits when a mother is separated from her infant child or an employer undercuts American wages by hiring illegal workers.”
Well, it’s those “sticky details” that matter.