Thursday, August 28, 2008

A National Election Turns on a Single Word

You may not have heard Barack Obama's speech this evening (and yes, it's still evening as I write this), but it hardly matters -- if you didn't hear it, you're almost certainly gonna hear about it.

You will hear how Obama took it straight to McCain, directly and forcefully and yet without being shrill or strident or stooping to the level of Republican dirty tricks. You will hear how Obama was supposedly taking some enormous risk by moving the acceptance speech to Invesco field, and how (brace yourself for a shock) the whole thing came off as an astonishingly well-choreographed tableau of patriotism, optimism, and an all but uncontainable enthusiasm for the candidate. If conventions are infomercials, Obama surely got a hell of a lot of sales with this supposedly risky move out there.

Most importantly -- and most surprisingly -- you will hear how Obama, the man who supposedly lacked the mettle to serve as Commander-in-Chief, methodically unwound every facet of McCain's one-issue campaign of attempting to snatch the White House by fomenting fear. It will be, if it isn't already, instantly recognizable as the sea-change in the conversation about who should be our next President.

Most Democratic-candidate acceptance speeches are stirring, well-written, and fun to watch. Even Republican acceptance speeches are mostly well-written and occasionally fun to watch. Most acceptance speeches from candidates of both parties are, at their foundations, good speeches, delivered well. But very few of them impart structural change onto the dynamic of an election. It's too early to say for sure, but this speech -- Barack Obama's acceptance speech -- may well do just that.

After a stirring tribute to the individual members of his family, at once genuine and strategically insightful, followed at just the right moment by a bakers' dozen commitments to the very sorts of policy specifics for which some in the main-stream media had yearned to hear from the Obama campaign, it happened: At roughly the quarter-mark of the text, notice was served with one, single, ingeniously chosen word. And that word, was temperament.

"...And just as we keep our promise to the next generation here at home, so must we keep America's promise abroad. If John McCain wants to have a debate about who has the temperament, and judgment, to serve as the next Commander-in-Chief, that's a debate I'm ready to have."

The argument, plain and simple? That John McCain, of all people, has a lot of nerve saying that anyone else isn't prepared to handle the delicate and complex world to which American Diplomacy must return, in the next Administration, in order for our country not to be pinned down (and bankrupted) by one, or two, or heaven knows how many more, intractable conflicts. It was a brilliant turn of the debate, precisely because it required no further cartoon-drawing by Obama to sell. Even the most ardent of McCain's supporters will generally concede his unfortunate tendency to lose track of his own disposition, particularly when confronted by someone slow to share his notions of how the world should work. Obama, in language that managed somehow to be thrillingly unprepossessing, established in a single sentence the unsustainable irony that is a cranky, seventy-something cold warrior, trying to paint someone else as a bad choice for Lead Diplomat.

By pledging to carry on with many of the most bellicose and least-successful foreign doctrines of the current President -- some of them now abandoned even by that President himself -- John McCain has identified himself, not as the voice of safety and stability in foreign policy, but rather as the man who would as President only deliver further escalation, wider confrontations, and almost certainly new conflicts. And Barack Obama made that entire case, fairly, cleanly, eloquently, in a single paragraph of his speech.

There was much, much more, of course -- all of it targeted with surgical precision and profoundly, at times movingly effective -- from Afghanistan to Health Care. And then back again. But the takeaway from the evening wasn't any of those policy offerings, or any of the rhetorical barbs that packaged each of those offerings like so much playful gift-wrap: Yes, the speech was perfect-pitch, perfect length, rhetorically ideal for its time and place, and, yes, proud and confident and ready for us all to step up and do our part. But tonight won't be the night that any of those things happened.

Tonight was the night that Barack Obama took the other side's strongest argument -- their only argument -- and orated it straight into a two-months-early grave. Tonight was the night that the Republicans will look back on as the official notice that they may no longer rely on fear-mongering about the other guy (and speeches about Georgia that turn out to have been cribbed entirely from Wikipedia). Tonight was the night that Obama acknowledged how his candidacy was being framed by the other side--and then, in a manner that was at once classy, dignified, but make no mistake, forceful, shined the bright light of preposterousness on that one-issue campaign for every persuadable voter left in America to see.

Tonight was the night that Barack Obama took the cardinal step toward securing his near-term future, as our country's next President.

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