Fulcrum Ruminations

Monday, September 08, 2008

Conventional Wisdom

The major political conventions have been and gone. Time to reflect on what we've learned.

Conventions, as the soundbite has it, are these days highly scripted events. There were no real surprises at either one. But they're still instructive, as they give us a chance to see the candidates make major speeches in front of huge audiences. You can get a glimpse of the real personalities in those moments.

Michelle Obama was very impressive. Many politicos are very obviously reading when they give speeches. Not Ms Obama. She sounded like she was talking, not speechifyin'. Her voice fairly trembled with passion in spots and she came across as very earnest. Too bad she's not actually running for anything . . .

Barack Obama demonstrated again that he gives good speech. Not quite at the Bill Clinton or Ronald Reagan level, but very natural and warm. Alas, watching him in other venues suggests that he can do this only when working from prepared material. Speaking off the cuff, he tends to "umm" and "aahh" a lot and hesitate a whole lot more. He's stiff, in other words. Nevertheless, he remains well able to stir a crowd and it's not hard to see how he inspires people. Content-wise, well, it was a convention speech and as such full of boilerplate. Nothing particularly memorable, but solid and touching on just about all of the points that needed touching upon. And, as is usual these days, short on actual substance. He's going to do thus-and-such when elected, but we're not told how he'll do it, or what magic he will use to bring opposing (partisan) interests together, or where the money to fund his programs will come from.

Obama's running mate, Senator Joe Biden, brings badly needed experience to the ticket but somewhat undercuts the "hope and change" mantra due to being such a classic Washington insider. Biden's speech was the speech of a party hack, to be blunt. Gives the impression that he'll be used as the attack dog for the balance of the campaign, allowing Obama to stay at least partially above the fray. But Biden is also a known quantity in Washington, and the choice of him as running mate brings a degree of balance to the ticket . . . neophyte change agent Obama teamed with experienced knows-where-all-the-bits-go Biden makes an attractive package to many potential voters. It's something old and something new, the promise of shaking things up leavened with the reassurance of not shaking things up so much that they fall apart.

On the Republican side, the major story is of course McCain's out-of-left-field selection of Governor Sarah Palin as VP. Timed perfectly to steal Obama's momentum coming out of the Democratic convention, the Palin announcement has reportedly electrified the conservative base, something McCain on his own had almost completely failed to do.

As an aside, the impact of the announcement and the start of the Republican convention was nearly torpedoed by Hurricane Gustav in a "you can't make this stuff up" bit of nearly flawless timing. Amusing that what the McCain team did to Obama by design was almost done to them in turn by act of God.

Anyway, Palin would seem a very odd choice for VP. She takes away McCain's best weapon against Obama, which is the younger man's lack of experience. Any such charge now levelled against Obama immediately boomerangs back on Team McCain thru the obvious lack of experience of a less-than-one-term governor of a relatively small (population-wise, at least) state. The counterpoint to that, tho, is that every time Obama says "I have all the tools I need to be President", Palin can say the same thing, since she's got a good deal more executive experience than has Obama.

The McCain-Palin team is almost a mirror image of the Obama-Biden team. McCain is the Washington insider, despite his oft-repeated claim to being a maverick. Governor Palin is the brash young reformer from Outside, balancing McCain's age and political hack-ness with her youth and uncorrupted outside-the-beltway credentials. Palin is also, very likely, the future of the Republican party. She and a few other up-and-coming new faces (like Governor Bobby Jindal from Louisiana) are the emerging leaders of the next generation.

The two teams mirror in another way as well. Palin gave an outstanding speech when she accepted the Republican nomination, showing poise and sincerity. McCain gave a McCain speech, which is to say, nothing special. Except at the very end when he seemed to really reach inside for some passion. And pardon me for saying, but can the man give one speech without reminding us that he was a POW in VietNam? He mentions it every time he's in front of the cameras, it seems like. While his experiences in VietNam are undoubtedly an important part of his background, and in fact a much more telling glimpse of his character than anything any of the other major players has shown us, he's sort of beating it into the ground and robbing the story of its impact.

The selection of Palin makes the overall Presidential race much more interesting, which may be the governor's major contribution to the whole deal. Well, that and making the Vice-Presidential debate pretty much a no-win situation for Joe Biden . . . he can't attack her too harshly without seeming like he's "beating up a woman" and if he shows the least bit of defensiveness he risks looking like he's being beaten up by a woman. And so far, Palin gives an impression of confidence which suggests that Biden is going to be in for a tough time at the debate.

The real story, obviously, is still the contest between McCain and Obama, as interesting as the VP face-off might be. I personally don't think McCain has enough of a base to win, even with Palin. I think the Obama juggernaut is going to steamroller right in to the White House come November. There are just too many people out there who are sick to death of business-as-usual in Washington and hold the opinon that Obama is the guy to shake things up. So I still project Obama to be our next President.

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