He had multiple tasks tonight and hit most of them in a speech delivered in front of a board with the slogan “A Leader We Can Believe In.” (You know where he cribbed that one.) First, lots of praise for Hillary Clinton. Yes, he is going after those voters who think, as he put it, that she “deserves a lot more appreciation than she sometimes received. ” Second, he set out to defuse the “Bush clone” attack. It won’t be done in a single speech, but he asked voters not to buy what will certainly become an Obama refrain. On this, he pulled out the “you know me better than that” card. (That’s a separate item on the must do list: emphasize experience and that fact that he is a known quantity.) And he reeled off his list of disagreements with President Bush.
He also tried to shift the “change” argument to what kind of change — right or wrong, forward or back — which each candidate is offering. (“I have a few years on my opponent, so I am surprised that a young man has bought in to so many failed ideas.”) Although not heavy on specifics he did touch on the list of areas from education to transportation to energy he intends to reform. (Not exactly Yuval Levin, but a start.)
But the toughest part, not surprisingly, was on Iraq, where he went after Obama:
Senator Obama opposed the new strategy, and, after promising not to, voted to deny funds to the soldiers who have done a brilliant and brave job of carrying it out. Yet in the last year we have seen the success of that plan as violence has fallen to a four year low; Sunni insurgents have joined us in the fight against al Qaeda; the Iraqi Army has taken the lead in places once lost to Sunni and Shia extremists; and the Iraqi Government has begun to make progress toward political reconciliation. None of this progress would have happened had we not changed course over a year ago. And all of this progress would be lost if Senator Obama had his way and began to withdraw our forces from Iraq without concern for conditions on the ground and the advice of commanders in the field. Americans ought to be concerned about the judgment of a presidential candidate who says he’s ready to talk, in person and without conditions, with tyrants from Havana to Pyongyang, but hasn’t traveled to Iraq to meet with General Petraeus, and see for himself the progress he threatens to reverse.
And finally, he needed to begin the examination of Obama’s record. He did that by invoking Obama’s lack of bipartisan accomplishments, his support of earmarks and the Bush-Cheney energy bill, and his reversion to protectionist pandering on trade. (“He’s an intelligent man, and he must know how foolish it is to think Americans can remain prosperous without opening new markets to our goods and services. But he feels he must defer to the special interests that support him. That’s not change we can believe in.’)
It was aggressive, feisty (especially the repeated mantra of “that’s not change we can believe in”), a bit funny and showed some growth in the McCain campaign’s strategy — a new determination to make this race about something, not just about the candidate. Still, I suspect the rather staid setting and energy level won’t compare well with what is sure to be the rock concert-like event for Obama later tonight. And on two final cosmetic notes, McCain looked a bit washed out in the setting and is improved (but not yet great) on the teleprompter.