Corn has broken stories on presidents, politicians, and other Washington players. He's written for numerous publications and is a talk show regular. His best-selling books include Hubris: The Inside Story of Spin, Scandal, and the Selling of the Iraq War.
It was a historic speech on a historic night--in a remarkable setting. A crowd of tens of thousands of Americans, filling an entire stadium in the middle of the country, waved American flags and signs calling for "Change." Never in the nation's history had more Americans attended such an event. Never before had an African-American accepted the presidential nomination of a major party in the United States. And the speech of Barack Obama matched the moment.
He connected his own history--the history of a not-quite-ordinary American family--to the mythical promise of America. His rhetoric soared--as usual--but it was tethered to reality: in particular, the stark differences between how Obama would approach the challenges the nation now faces and how John McCain would do so. Obama laced his criticism of the Bush years and the possible McCain years with a dose of populism, which gave portions of the speech a sharp edge. And he brought his pitch for hope and change down to the ground with a succinct description of policy ideas he would work for as president.
Obama, as convention dictates, began with a high-minded theme: America is a land of promise, but, he declared, that promise--especially for hardworking Americans--is in jeopardy, placing the nation at a critical juncture. "These challenges are not all of government's making," he said. "But the failure to respond is a direct result of a broken politics in Washington and the failed policies of George W. Bush. America, we are better than these last eight years. We are a better country than this." Given that polls show that at least seven out of ten Americans--maybe more--believe the country is on the wrong track and a similar number of Americans disapprove of Bush, his criticism was not at all radical.
In one of the more important passages, Obama, taking a populist turn, made the case that his opponent does not understand this:
There's been some talk among pundits and progressives that the Obama campaign could use a touch more populism--especially to reach those working-class voters (read: white working-class voters). So maybe the Democratic convention could have used someone talking like this:
My focus is on working families--people trying to make house payments and car payments, working overtime to save for college and do right by their kids. Whether you're in a suburb, or an inner-city. Whether you raise crops or drive hogs and cattle on a farm, drive a big rig on the Interstate, or drive e-commerce on the Internet Whether you're starting out to raise your own family, or getting ready to retire after a lifetime of hard work
So often, powerful forces and powerful interests stand in your way, and the odds seemed stacked against you--even as you do what's right for you and your family.
How and what we do for all of you - the people who pay the taxes, bear the burdens, and live the American dream--that is the standard by which we should be judged.
That's a passage from Al Gore's feisty I-will-fight-for-you-against-powerful-interests acceptance speech at the 2000 convention. This time around, on the final night of the convention, Gore appeared at Invesco Field an hour before Barack Obama was scheduled to come out, and he spoke--no surprise--mostly about climate change. He was eloquent on the subject, as he usually is. He did take a whack at the oil and coal industries and "the forces of the status quo." But he sure did not tailor his remarks to the sort of voters he focused on in his 2000 speech.
Of course, it's not Gore's job to populist-ize the Obama campaign. That seems to be Joe Biden's mission. But Gore's speech on Thursday night--given the obvious comparison to his 2000 speech--was a reminder that something's been missing.
THIS JUST IN: Shortly after Gore spoke, the convention presented several working- or middle-class voters who explained why they were supporting Obama. One of them, Smith Barney, who lost his job in a Marian, Indiana, factory, had what was (so far) the best populist line of the night: "We need a president who puts Barney Smith before SmithBarney."
The good news for the Barack Obama camp: Joe Biden has no more big speeches to deliver between now and Election Day.
In what was the Democrats' best night of the first three, Biden capped the evening with a heartfelt speech emphasizing his middle-class roots that was marred by an irregular rhythm and a series of verbal slip-ups. He said "millions" instead of "billions." He praised Obama for working on an Illinois state health care program that provided coverage to 150 children and parents, not 150,000. Biden blasted John McCain in a predictable manner: for championing tax cuts that benefit the wealthy, for misjudgments regarding foreign policy. There were good and touching moments, such as the tribute to his mother and his empathetic recognition of the everyday challenges confronted by Americans facing hard times. And he tied the need to help working-class families to Barack Obama's appeal: "He has tapped into the oldest American belief of all: We don't have to accept a situation we cannot bear. We have the power to change it." Biden covered the bases but did not rock the house. He was no Bill Clinton. He wasn't even a John Kerry. (See Kevin's somewhat more generous take here.)
But the Obama campaign had an insurance policy. After Biden finished, Barack Obama made an unscheduled appearance and restored the energy level to the room and the convention. Working the Pepsi Center like a talk show host--has he been taking lessons from Oprah?--Obama seized control of the evening and promised a great night on Thursday, when he will accept his party's presidential nomination at Invesco Field.
The third night of the convention--Biden aside--presented a more coherent message than the previous evenings, which were dominated by the obligatory tasks of undoing the rightwing attacks on Michelle Obama and satisfying Hillary Clinton and the Hillary Hold-ons. On Thursday, it seemed as if the Obama campaign was finally able to get down to business: making the pitch.
Despite all the talk that Bill Clinton was not happy with his speaking slot at the Democratic convention or that he still was peeved by criticisms that came his way during the primaries, there was no way that Clinton would allow himself to be outshone as the orator of his party. As Kevin notes, he delivered a helluva speech on Wednesday night.
As soon as the crowd of delegates finished giving him the loudest and longest ovation of the convention (so far), Clinton declared that he was "here, first, tonight to support Barack Obama." With his trademark blending of folksiness and policy-talk, he presented a rock-solid case for Obama. Immediately, it was obvious: forget Hillary Clinton, it is Bill Clinton who has the potential to be Obama's best advocate on the campaign trail in the coming weeks,
The speech combined an effective critique of the Bush years, a sharp attack of Republican notions John McCain has embraced, and an enthusiastic endorsement of Obama as a man "ready to be president" on Day One. And it was laced with memorable lines. His rhetoric soared:
Speaking at the Democratic convention on Wednesday night, Senator Evan Bayh made a qualified case against John McCain: he's a good man who has made some bad decisions. Senator John Kerry, who hit the podium later on, sharpened the attack and raised questions about McCain's integrity, age, and fondness for military confrontation.
Candidate McCain now supports the very wartime tax cuts that Senator McCain once called irresponsible. Candidate McCain criticizes Senator McCain's own climate change bill. Candidate McCain says he would now vote against the immigration bill that Senator McCain wrote. Are you kidding me, folks? Talk about being for it before you're against it.
So remember, when we choose a commander-in-chief this November, we are electing judgment and character, not years in the Senate or on this earth.
Eagerness for military confrontation:
John McCain stood on the deck of an aircraft carrier just three months after 9/11 and proclaimed, "Next up, Baghdad!," Barack Obama saw, even then, "an occupation" of "undetermined length, undetermined cost, undetermined consequences" that would, in his words, "only fan the flames of the Middle East." Well, guess what? Mission accomplished.
Kerry also took a swing at McCain for adopting "Rove tactics" and depending upon GOP Rove-bots to win election--and for perpetuating the politics of "Swift boating." For Democrats looking for a side of anger with their hope, Kerry came through.