Harris's speech was a clunker, Obama's was not

A few highlights from last night’s two big speeches, the first of the convention that might matter. Word on the street is that Obama was supposed to be the final speaker on Wednesday evening but insisted on switching with Harris so that she’d have the honor of being the closing act. That was appropriate. I think it would have been odd if the new VP nominee, the alleged future of the party, whom the media’s spent the past week telling Americans they should be super-jazzed about, was treated as the warm-up act for an ex-president. The party and its nominee have enough of a problem already trying to grow in Obama’s shadow. That would have made it worse.

So switching the slots was the right move. Even so, you can understand why producers who’d read the two speeches might have concluded that Obama should go last. Apart from his and Harris’s respective statures, his attack on Trump was historic and expressed in a potent way the theme of the entire convention, which is that Biden’s a decent guy who harbors no impulses towards fascism while the other party’s nominee is … not.

Here’s the transcript of Harris’s speech. To be fair to her, it’s impossible to make a VP acceptance address memorable. The format is too formulaic. Because it’s the nominee’s chance to introduce herself to the country, it’s necessarily heavy on cheesy biographical detail. Then the nominee has to savage the other party’s candidate, to prove that she’s willing to take the fight to the opposition. And then comes the part when she lavishes praise on her running mate. How do you write a “check the box” speech like that and make it sing?

Still, I think it underperformed even that low bar. “[I]f she had gone first, her pedestrian, disjointed speech, delivered in a tone of phony overacting, would have been largely forgotten by the morning. Obama really was that good, and Harris really was that bad,” wrote Damon Linker, who’s no hardcore righty. I think she ended up reminding people why she didn’t go anywhere in the primary. It’s not that she’s a bad speaker or politician, she’s just not a particularly good one. She has the credentials for the VP job, but so did Elizabeth Warren and Amy Klobuchar; I find it inconceivable that she’d have been the VP nominee if Warren were also African-American, as Warren would have helped Biden more with the left and is even more of a slasher onstage against her opponents than Harris is. (Ask Mike Bloomberg.) I think we can politely call Harris’s speech “acceptable” and “workmanlike.” She didn’t cost Biden any votes with it, at least, which is her core job duty.

Here’s the transcript of Obama’s speech, which wasn’t so much “great” as jarring, and highly memorable because of it. First, the staging was so odd that it felt like he was delivering it from a safe house somewhere. When we learned that he’d be speaking at the Museum of the American Revolution in Philadelphia, I thought he’d be out in front of the building or, if inside, in front of an image of the Founding Fathers. He ended up in the mostly blank corner of an exhibit room on the Constitution, looking as if the walls were closing in. The vibe was of a leader in exile addressing the public from some secret place he’d found where the regime couldn’t find him — which may have been deliberate, as that was the point of his speech. American civic traditions have been exiled under Trump and it’s time to restore them by ousting him.

It was also jarring because it felt like a bookend to Obama’s career. This isn’t the last convention speech he’ll ever give, of course. He’s not even 60. He’ll be delivering them for decades to come. But it was his 2004 convention speech that launched him to national fame, and in a way last night’s speech was a grim sequel to that one. The theme of the 2004 speech was that we’re one people, not “blue states” or “red states” but the United States. The theme of last night’s speech was Obama recognizing how far the country has drifted from that ideal — partly due to his presidency (although he didn’t recognize that part) — and pleading with people not to give up on it. Sam Stein of the Daily Beast remembered this morning how Obama and his advisors believed that the “fever” among Republicans who opposed him so adamantly in his first term would break in 2012 after he won reelection. In reality, the fever delivered a Trump presidency in 2016. “The fever broke,” said Stein, quoting a former Obama campaign aide, “but it broke in the other direction.”

“These shouldn’t be Republican principles or Democratic principles,” Obama insisted last night, after rattling off some of Trump’s civic transgressions (e.g., describing the media as the “enemy”). “They’re American principles. But at this moment, this president and those who enable him, have shown they don’t believe in these things.” That was a tragic moment in how it reframed the theme of 2004 as a matter of doubt, even naivete. If, 16 years later, you’re left trying to convince people that there really are American principles, not blue and red principles, then maybe those United States weren’t as united as he thought.

In the end, Guy Benson is right that this was a familiar Obama speech in many ways albeit souped up for the convention and for the political moment. Obama’s been scolding people to the tune of “this isn’t who we are” since the day he was sworn in. Lecturing people about the “right side of history” and how we’ve fallen short of our ideals is literally his favorite subject for oratory. “In a sane world, you see, his opinions and priorities would be embraced and accepted as totally uncontroversial — but alas, his irrational, dangerous opponents insist on ruining everything, and therefore must be crushed,” says Benson of Obama’s general attitude to politics, correctly. We can and should also remind O of his own breaks with American civic norms as part of the history of How We Got Here. Claiming the power to rewrite U.S. immigration law unilaterally and playing fast and loose with congressional authorization over the war in Libya are just two high-stakes examples that come to mind. The drift towards an ever-more powerful presidency and ever-weaker legislature didn’t start with him, but it sure didn’t stop with him either.

His speech worked, though, because in the end the core critique was true. Trump cares nothing for American civic norms. You could glean that about him if all you knew of his record was the Lafayette Park stunt, but there’s new evidence every day. Just this week he’s claimed that if he loses the vote in November it was necessarily rigged and he’s spoken warmly of a political cult that believes Democratic leaders are pedophiles who worship Satan. A few weeks ago he casually wondered if the election should be delayed. The only thing forcing him to restrain some of his most demagogic and authoritarian impulses is the knowledge that he has to face voters on November 3. If he’s handed four more years, that restraint disappears on November 4. He’ll be what he’s always wanted to be, completely unaccountable. Obama’s point, simplified, is that whatever’s on the other side of that tunnel won’t look like traditional American civic culture, and you won’t like what it does look like. To which I say: Correct.