Wednesday, August 27, 2008

The DNC So Far

We are two nights into the Democratic National Convention. How are things going?

The first night was dominated by a tribute to Ted Kennedy and a speech by Michelle Obama. Kennedy was a distraction. Michelle's speech was meant to assure the electorate that she and her husband are regular people.

The second night was dominated by Hillary. She was supposed to talk between 10:00 and 11:00 EDT. She was late and the networks (or at least NBC which I had on) filled in by focusing on Bill as he gave hugs all around. Hillary eventually gave her speech. She said that Obama needed to be elected, mainly because he was a Democrat and McCain isn't. She assured the country that Obama would give them a laundry list of big-ticket items then she went on to talk about herself. I found the Harriet Tubman reference a bit over the top. Tubman risked her life repeatedly to help slaves escape to Canada. If caught, Tubman faced death or re-enslavement and mutilation. On the other hand, if Hillary lost then she faced what? A return to the Senate and a chance to give a keynote speech at the convention.

What is missing from all of this is a reason to vote for Obama. Obama has already won over the true believers but a lot of the country remains skeptical. He has made a lot of promises, some of them conflicting, and he has not spelled out how he will accomplish anything. He is a first-term senator with no history of reaching out to the other side or of breaking with the party ranks but he claims that he will end partisanship and reshape our economy.

With the war in Iraq off the table and the candidates in agreement on the war in Afghanistan, Obama has to convince voters that he can handle a domestic agenda better than McCain. So far he has criticized McCain a lot, often mis-characterizing McCain's positions. Obama has promised to reshuffle taxes and to spend a lot of money. In 2006 Democrats won partly on a platform of fiscal restraint. Obama threw that out the window.

Bill Clinton hit the nail on the head when he said this:

He said: "Suppose you're a voter, and you've got candidate X and candidate Y. Candidate X agrees with you on everything, but you don't think that candidate can deliver on anything at all. Candidate Y you agree with on about half the issues, but he can deliver. Which candidate are you going to vote for?"

 Then, perhaps mindful of how his off-the-cuff remarks might be taken, Clinton added after a pause: "This has nothing to do with what's going on now."

Bill is tonight's speaker. I doubt that he will spend much time convincing us that Obama can deliver on his promises. That means that it is up to Obama to sell himself during his acceptance speech. Even for a gifted speaker, this will be difficult. Moving his speech to a stadium instead of the convention plays up McCain's charges that Obama is a celebrity who is not ready to lead.

Even if Obama gives the speech of his life, the Republicans still have four nights to undercut him. Their candidate has a long history of achievement. The danger there is that he will fall into the same trap that Kerry did in 2004. Kerry spent too much time talking about his service in Viet Nam and not enough time talking about what he would do if elected. McCain needs to sell his vision of the future.

If the election comes down to Obama's talk of hope and change vs McCain's service to his country then Obama will win. If it is about Obama's ability to effect change vs McCain's then McCain will win.

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