Commentary Magazine


Obama Tightens, McCain Broadens

There have been several unexpected political developments in the presidential race over the past 13 days, following the selection of Joseph Biden as Barack Obama’s running mate.

First was the way the opening two days, and even part of the third, of the Democratic convention were overrun by the Clinton melodrama. That was resolved, to the satisfaction of all, with an energetic speech by Hillary and a stemwinder by Bill — but even so, it was not predictable that they were going to get away with turning Obama’s coronation into yet another Arkansas soap opera.

But perhaps nothing has been more surprising than the fact that Obama’s own speech was far more personally and ideologically negative toward John McCain and the GOP than Biden’s was. Standard general-election politics has it that the vice presidential candidate is to dispense with the cordiality and go directly at the opposition, while the presidential candidate — whose central goal is usually to broaden his appeal, move to the center, and try to bring new voters into his camp — is to elevate himself into the realm of World Leadership. He wants people to be able to imagine him in the Oval Office, and to like what they imagine; leaders, it was once presumed, had to remain above the partisan fray.

Even if the idea of a leader too august to mix it up is more spin than substance, there is still something to the notion that the comportment of the leader of the Free World is important, and that we expect such a leader to focus his attention on higher matters. It was therefore even more stunning that Obama, who made such a point of running as a change agent sick of the same old Washington bickering during his ascension in late 2007 and early 2008, chose the moment of his greatest visibility to muddy his own message and to blur that image. After all, more people saw Obama’s speech a week ago than have ever seen him speak before, by a factor of four. I don’t know whether those potential initiates will now think of him as someone new and different in American politics for reasons other than his race, since his speech smacked of the partisan rancor he has suggested he was put on this earth to overcome.

Obama’s decision to go at McCain rather than ride a higher horse left McCain with a colossal opening, and he took it last night. His speech was the most non-partisan address I think any of us has ever heard at a political convention, and it was explicitly directed toward the people who were seeing him for the first time. He told anew the story of his captivity and his life of service, so they would know what kind of man he is outside of politics.

And then, because he could, because it is part of his own political story, he told them that he had spent a lifetime in politics trying to change Washington, and that because he knew the fight down to his marrow, he could succeed at it.

He said he had been fighting the status quo for 25 years, that he knew why his party had fallen into disrepute, that it deserved the disrepute into which it had fallen, and that he didn’t care whether Democrats or Republicans got the credit for good ideas he might implement in office.

Claiming this turf in the non-ideological center was the sole purpose of this speech, and succeeding at this task was made far easier by the fact that Obama strangely chose not to stake his claim to it. Now, obviously, Obama has a better partisan hand to play than McCain. Ask voters whether they prefer Democrats to Republicans and Obama’s party prevails by a dozen points.

Still, Obama will not win with a coalition made up entirely of partisan Democrats and independents who are Democratic fellow travelers. Many of those independents may indeed dislike George W. Bush, but the very fact that they remain undecided demonstrates that their negative feelings may not have the intensity Obama believes or wishes to believe they do.

Obama tightened and focused his message in his speech. McCain broadened his. As always, the only judges of these strategies will be time and results. But there is strong reason to think that the golden-tongued Obama tripped himself up a bit last week, while his rival, who tripped over his own tongue more than a few times last night, laid out for himelf a path to victory last night.

About the Author

John Podhoretz is editor of COMMENTARY.