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Promise Keepers

By Jesse Taylor
Sunday, August 31, 2008 13:20 EDT
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imageDavid Broder writes today on the lost promise of Obama’s changing politics because…well, because he’s a Democrat.

If this were just an off night by a speaker we know can soar, it would be no more than a blip on the screen. Obama picked a bad night to be ordinary, given the huge crowd that filled the Denver Broncos’ stadium and the elaborate Grecian setting constructed for his performance.

But John McCain is hardly a major threat as a speaker, so what’s the difference?

Here’s why I think it matters. One of the major questions about Obama, of whom so little is known, is whether he is really serious about challenging the partisan gridlock in Washington or whether his election would simply bring on the regular wish list of liberal policies.

A sidebar: conservative policies are always a platform or a plan, and liberal policies are always “wish lists”. Telling.

Anyway, Broder’s frame here comes from wholeheartedly accepting the frame of another man who’s changed politics in Washington – Joe Lieberman. Lieberman was the architect of the compromise-compromise, where you start out working with the other side by signaling to them that you’re already halfway to their position anyway. It set the standard for a generation of “challenging the partisan gridlock” by totally undercutting one side of the debate before the debate ever began, and it’s the standard that the Brodertariat has used for years: how willing are liberals and Democrats to bend on their platform towards the steely, realistic resolve of the GOP?

The promise that Obama brings – realistically or not – is that he, unlike many Democrats before, will forcefully advocate for a platform that drastically alters the way business is done in Washington (and given that the past 28 years in Washington have largely been a shift towards the right with some flashes of non-insanity during the Clinton years, it’s not hard to do), and will actually listen to those on the other side without declaring them traitors for opposing him. One of the major ways you challenge the “partisan gridlock” in Washington, the current iteration of which happened to coincide entirely with the incoming Congressional class of 2007, is by making it clear that you’re going to challenge the current political dynamic rather than bowing to it. Whether or not Obama can do that is a far deeper question, but it’s not betrayed by anything he said on Thursday.

Well, unless you’re David Broder and you’re betrayed by the fact that the morning newspaper is in the bushes rather than square in the middle of the doorstep, and you’re forced to malign the many ways in which this is a betrayal of the promise of home delivery.

Obama’s disappointing speech also reflected what I had thought was the one conspicuous failure of the convention program — the missed opportunity to introduce the country to others in the younger generation of Democrats than just Obama and his dazzling wife, Michelle.

The convention hall was full of bright, attractive men and women serving as governors or mayors or in other posts. Obama knows many of them from his campaign travels, and he gave the keynote spot to one of them, Virginia’s Mark Warner.

To be fair, we were introduced to a new generation of Democrats. It’s just that they all happen to look like blurry, colorful specks behind Wolf Blitzer’s head and/or people walking off stage before the cover band struck up Earth, Wind & Fire’s September.

But the prime-time spots on the convention program went to Sen. Ted Kennedy, Sen. Hillary Clinton, former president Bill Clinton and Sen. Joe Biden, the vice presidential nominee. All are comfortably familiar figures to members of my generation, and all are part of a Washington that is hardly the favorite of most voters.

I’m willing to bet a fair amount of money that Joe Biden is not, in fact, “comfortably familiar” to most people, given that his last moment of widespread public prominence was as a presidential candidate in 1987. Incidentally, between Kennedy and Michelle Obama came Claire McCaskill and Republican former Congressman Jim Leach; between Warner and Hillary Clinton came Ted Strickland, Deval Patrick and Brian Schweitzer, all new and/or unfamiliar governors; Tammy Duckworth and Bill Richardson got time between Clinton and Biden and Tim Kaine got time right before Al Gore. Every night had new or unfamiliar people to the nation…and the coverage couldn’t have been worse concerning them. It’s not Obama’s fault that there was wire-to-wire coverage of the various networks’ correspondents interrupted by brief convention breaks.

The only time a new president can really change Washington is when he makes it the central message of his campaign, as Ronald Reagan did in 1980.

Reagan’s skill was his rhetoric; hence the label “The Great Communicator.” After the 2004 Obama speech, Democrats thought they had found one of their own. It’s too bad that fellow didn’t make it to Denver.

It’s not even really worth asking if Broder saw the same speech we did – he, in fact, did. It’s just that whereas the rest of us heard all the words that Obama said and responded accordingly, Broder was listening for a promise that Obama wouldn’t bother his precious status quo in any but the most superficial ways.

Jesse Taylor
Jesse Taylor
Jesse Taylor is an attorney and blogger from the great state of Ohio. He founded Pandagon in July, 2002, and has also served on the campaign and in the administration of former Ohio Governor Ted Strickland. He focuses on politics, race, law and pop culture, as well as the odd personal digression when the mood strikes.
 
 
 
 
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