Commentary Magazine


Contentions

Words, Words, Words

Stephen Hayes raises a key point about Barack Obama: rhetoric really does get you far in presidential politics and Obama has enough substance to get by. Attacking his overzealous rhetoric was a sensible but ultimately losing tactic for Hillary Clinton, who could not easily quibble with Obama on actual policy positions and was trying to win on “experience.” However, the best argument for John McCain in the general election is not that there is nothing in all the rhetorical haze (although I think it entirely appropriate to point out that a cult of personality is not exactly in the best tradition of American democracy); it’s that what is there is wrongheaded and downright dangerous.

As Hayes points out, Reagan used rhetoric brilliantly to inspire and lead. However, the underlying message was one that Americans were receptive to–rebuilding America’s military might and strengthening the free market. Once Obama moves beyond the liberal Democratic primary electorate, he may find general election voters markedly less receptive to his vision: more government, retreat in Iraq (coupled paradoxically with the notion that America’s standoffishness is responsible for the world’s ills), and the imposition of a liberal social agenda. Even the most inspiring language won’t motivate people to go where they don’t want to go. In the end, ideas usually trump words.