Thoughts on the 2008 Democratic Convention

Published 5:04 pm Sunday, August 31, 2008

By By Tray Smith
American voters concerned Barack Obama’s call for change is either too radical or too ambiguous will find solace in his Thursday night speech to the Democratic National Convention. There, the Democratic nominee began fine tuning themes he has sounded throughout his campaign in order to paint a more complete picture of his priorities as President. From that speech, it is clear Obama’s agenda has shifted to a position much more inline with traditional Democratic goals than the post partisan objective of “new politics.”
The shift is part of a calculated move by Obama’s advisors, who feel that their candidate, polling worse than a generic Democrat, should campaign more like a typical liberal. Such a shift in strategy has potential to help Obama garner support from an electorate weary of another Republican president. However, such a shift disregards considerations Obama’s campaign has either overlooked or chosen to ignore.
First, Obama’s failure to poll as well as a generic Democrat is due in part because John McCain polls much better than a generic Republican. That fact would remain true regardless of Obama’s campaign strategy - voters respect John McCain’s heroic service as a POW, his willingness to disregard party interest, and his lifetime of service in the United States Congress. He is not viewed as part of the same GOP tent that elected George W. Bush because, after all, he ran against Bush once and considered running against him again.
Therefore, Barack Obama would be better served running against John McCain as a person, and stop running against George Bush’s third term and the weakened Republican brand.
Second, Obama’s success, and a large part of Obama’s appeal, has been based around the young Senator’s reputation as someone newer, someone fresher, and someone less divisive than the partisans who have been running Washington for the past generation. Refocusing his campaign around traditional liberalism significantly weakens that core appeal. In 40 years, only two Democrats, Jimmy Carter and Bill Clinton, have been elected to the White House. Both ran as untraditional Democrats. On the other hand, George McGovern, Walter Mondale, Michael Dukakis, and John Kerry all ran as traditional liberals, and all of them lost.
Third, Obama’s claim to represent new or post partisan politics has been invalidated by Obama’s own campaign tactics. This reversal began during the primaries, when the Obama campaign waged an increasingly negative effort against Hillary Clinton. It continued over the summer, when Obama opted out of public financing for his White House bid. It peaked Thursday night, when Obama repeatedly attacked Senator McCain.
I have never been a fan of new politics; I have always believed that politicians run intense campaigns because they are effective. Obama is realizing that now. However, Obama has gone out of his way to make bridging the partisan divide a cornerstone of his candidacy. He does not have the flexibility to rid himself of that burden now. By fiercely attacking McCain, Obama has destroyed the only rationale the inexperienced Senator ever had for his candidacy: hope that he would transcend the partisan divide.
Finally, Obama’s shift to a more traditional liberal campaign is a big shift. Obama has flipped from postpartisan pol to populist Democrat. That change has left voters trying to decide which Barack will take the oath next January.
Overall, Obama deserves credit for giving a good speech in the face of high expectations. However, there is a risk that his short term bounce will turn into a long term liability. During Obama’s world tour last month, he enjoyed considerable press coverage and rising poll numbers. His speech in Berlin, though hollow, was eloquent. However, as working class swing voters began to absorb the totality of the event - an American Presidential candidate addressing 200,000 Germans at a campaign rally in Berlin - they began to be repulsed by it.
Obama’s convention speech could follow that path. Although his speech in Denver was not as grandiose as his speech in Berlin (it was deliberately toned down to avoid another German flop), it was delivered in a venue different than Berlin. Speaking before 85,000 supporters with a row of Greek columns resembling the White House behind his back, Obama’s very unconventional convention rally provides Republicans another opportunity to exploit the growing consensus that the Democratic nominee is a celebrity politician with little meat on his bones, swelling with pride in his own meager accomplishments. That’s the bottom line.
Tray Smith is a political columnist for the Atmore Advance. He is a student at Escambia County High School and can be reached at tsmith_90@

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