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POLITICS AUGUST 27, 2008

Back on Track

Walking into the Pepsi Center this afternoon, I ran into a prominent elected official who’s also a strong Obama supporter. What did he think of the convention so far? Not much, it seemed. The Democrats’ message to date felt muddled, he said. He was looking forward to Bill Clinton, Joe Biden, and Barack Obama “breaking through” with their respective addresses.


This muddle was partly a matter of necessity. Saluting Ted Kennedy, putting a warmer face on Michelle Obama, and granting Hillary Clinton her moment were things that simply had to be done. (Mark Warner’s dud of a keynote was simply a matter of a poor choice of speaker.) But these felt like discrete, individual tasks--not part of a grander theme meant for low-information voters. Meanwhile, the endless psychodrama of the Clinton-Obama relationship was stifling the Obama camp’s ability to present a crisp message. A voter wondering whether Barack Obama really connects with the lives of ordinary Americans probably didn’t hear much to convince him on that score.



Tonight, the Democrats took a step towards clarity. Bill Clinton’s speech was one of the finest cases for Obama’s candidacy yet. It was thoughtful and sophisticated, heartfelt without crossing the line into phony dreck. Clinton’s acute reminder that he is one of two living Democrats to have seen the world from behind the Oval Office desk lent a particular heft. And at last he brought himself to do the one thing the Clintons had yet to say about Barack Obama: “He is ready” to be president. The checking of that box was a critical moment in this campaign--and in the longer-term redemption of Bill Clinton among core Democrats.



The Democrat I ran into this afternoon didn’t mention John Kerry. But I imagine that he, like many in the Pepsi Center, was pleasantly surprised by the former Democratic nominee’s speech. Kerry’s swipes at “the myth of the maverick” John McCain--with his memorable refrain pitting the past positions of “Senator McCain” versus “candidate McCain”--was precisely the sort of clever-but-tough line of attack against McCain that Democrats have struggled to perfect. (Kerry’s ability to turn that joke into a self-deprecating crack about his own “voted for it before I voted against it" formulation--and the crowd’s hearty laughter--also felt like a small moment of redemption in and of itself.) Kerry’s speech recognized the best way to undermine McCain’s formidable image of integrity and honor is through plain and indisputable facts about his record--not ad hominem shots that allow McCain to flash his POW card.



As for Biden, he was solid but not spectacular. His habit of rephrasing lines from his prepared text dulled some of his speech’s crispness, and he threw in too many of his signature cornball rhetorical asides “ladies and gentlemen.” More significant, Joe Biden can reach true magical heights when talking about the economic plight of working-class Americans, and tonight he just didn’t seem to sing. His speech was stocked with soundbite-y refrains--“That’s the change we need”; “John McCain was wrong. Barack Obama was right”--which perhaps sapped his ability to achieve the memorable lyricism of which he’s capable. That said, the refrains are clear--and likely to break through the dreaded muddle, so in that sense Biden’s speech was a success.



Still, what really matters is tomorrow. If the Republicans have their way, this election will be a referendum on Barack Obama--and whether Americans are prepared to elect this man with a strange name and background to be president. No one can sell the man better than himself. Whether this convention is remembered as a triumph or a muddle will be determined tomorrow night in a football stadium. The Democrats’ quarterback is ready to take his snap.


Michael Crowley is a senior editor at The New Republic.

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