There was a fair bit of talk about Bill Clinton's speech Wednesday night to the Democratic convention, and Peggy Noonan even went so far as to declare that "The Master Has Arrived." But she is wrong. When it comes to political oratory, the master arrived last night at Invesco Field. Bill Clinton can give a glib speech, but there has always been something missing from his delivery. Try as he might—and he really did try—he was never able to convincingly fake sincerity. Barack Obama can fake sincerity, and that, more than the words of a speech or the pageantry that precedes it, is the key to his power as a speaker.
His speech last night was brilliant and perfect. It is too bad that the whole thing was a lie, which depended on the smoothness and apparent sincerity of Senator Obama's delivery to lull the listener into a state of credulity and prevent him from asking too many questions.
Here's an example that is small but revealing. Obama led with the best sales pitch he has to offer: that he is not George Bush. But of course, Obama is running against John McCain, not Bush. So he attempted to justify the substitution by claiming that "John McCain has voted with George Bush ninety percent of the time." This statistic has been used throughout the Democratic convention, but it makes no sense. Bush is not a member of Congress and casts no votes there—so how can you compare his voting record to that of McCain?
But don't examine this folly; ask only what it accomplishes. It allows Obama to run against an unpopular president who will not defend himself because he is not actually in the race.
When it came to making the positive case for himself, Obama's first goal was to address the public's concerns about his background, particularly his patriotism and how much he identifies with American values. So he drew, not from his own biography, but from that of his family.
[I]n the faces of those young veterans who come back from Iraq and Afghanistan, I see my grandfather, who signed up after Pearl Harbor, marched in Patton's Army, and was rewarded by a grateful nation with the chance to go to college on the GI Bill.
In the face of that young student who sleeps just three hours before working the night shift, I think about my mom, who raised my sister and me on her own while she worked and earned her degree; who once turned to food stamps but was still able to send us to the best schools in the country with the help of student loans and scholarships….
And when I hear a woman talk about the difficulties of starting her own business, I think about my grandmother, who worked her way up from the secretarial pool to middle-management, despite years of being passed over for promotions because she was a woman. She's the one who taught me about hard work….
I don't know what kind of lives John McCain thinks that celebrities lead, but this has been mine. These are my heroes. Theirs are the stories that shaped me.
In addition to identifying himself with the lower-income, blue-collar types who have so far refused to vote for him, Obama is also painting himself as someone with uncontroversial, traditional American values, someone who believes in fighting for your country and improving your life through hard work and perseverance.
This is supposed to make us forget that Barack Obama launched his political career under the spiritual guidance of a pastor who delivered far-left tirades calling on God to damn America—and he launched his first campaign under the patronage of a former domestic terrorist. Theirs are the stories that also shaped Barack Obama—but he wants to write Jeremiah Wright and William Ayers out of his biography.
Worse, he wants us to stop asking questions about this sort of thing.
These are the policies I will pursue. And in the weeks ahead, I look forward to debating them with John McCain. But what I will not do is suggest that the Senator takes his positions for political purposes. Because one of the things that we have to change in our politics is the idea that people cannot disagree without challenging each other's character and patriotism. The times are too serious, the stakes are too high for this same partisan playbook. So let us agree that patriotism has no party. I love this country, and so do you, and so does John McCain.
It's awfully generous of Obama to refrain from questioning the patriotism of a war hero. The real purpose of this statement, of course, is not to protect McCain but to protect Obama. Its purpose is to declare off-limits any further questions or discussion about his past association with Wright, Ayers, and all of the other shady characters from Obama's past.
On another area where he is particularly weak, foreign policy, Obama decided that the best defense is a strident offense. He projected a righteous self-confidence intended to make his viewers forget his opposition to the surge and his weak and stumbling response to the Russian invasion of Georgia. In this section, note again the gap between rhetoric and reality—and the willing suspension of critical thought that he requires of his listener.
For example, here is what he has to say on Afghanistan.
When John McCain said we could just "muddle through" in Afghanistan, I argued for more resources and more troops to finish the fight against the terrorists who actually attacked us on 9/11, and made clear that we must take out Osama bin Laden and his lieutenants if we have them in our sights. John McCain likes to say that he'll follow bin Laden to the Gates of Hell—but he won't even go to the cave where he lives.
Obama criticizes McCain for allegedly going soft on al-Qaeda—it's a good thing he's not going to question anyone's patriotism—yet all Obama can offer is precisely the policies we are already pursuing: more money and troop for Afghanistan and one-at-a-time special forces strikes against al-Qaeda leaders "if we have them in our sights," which we have been doing for years. What Obama is presenting as a tough and visionary new policy is his support for the Bush administration's status quo. Does he really think that no one will notice?
His statement on Iraq is an even more brazen evasion. He boasts that "today, as my call for a time frame to remove our troops from Iraq has been echoed by the Iraqi government and even the Bush administration,…John McCain stands alone in his stubborn refusal to end a misguided war." But all of the current discussion about drawing down troops from Iraq is possible only because of the success of the surge—which John McCain advocated and Barack Obama opposed. He is presenting the success of a military buildup as vindication for a policy of military retreat.
Perhaps his worst line, however, is this one: "You can't truly stand up for Georgia when you've strained our oldest alliances." This is a reference to NATO—which has been conspicuously useless in the Georgian conflict, refusing even a symbolic resolution to suspend military cooperation with Russia. This statement is evidence that Obama is not even paying attention to world events. But he expects the viewer to be carried forward by the certainty and stridency of his tone. He asserts with an air of conviction, "don't tell me that Democrats won't defend this country"—but he depends on the air of conviction, not any actual evidence, to sway the listener.
Addressing criticisms that he offers soaring rhetoric with no specifics, Obama replies "So let me spell out exactly what…'change' would mean if I am president." But what he presents is mostly a list of aspirations, such as "Change means a tax code that doesn't reward the lobbyists who wrote it, but the American workers and small businesses who deserve it." Or: "for the sake of our economy, our security, and the future of our planet, I will set a clear goal as president: in ten years, we will finally end our dependence on oil from the Middle East." How is that to be achieved? Is it even possible to achieve it? Obama offers no answer.
Obama's list of specifics continues in this vein, promising everything to everyone in a way that would make the Clintons blush—but with such an earnest sincerity of delivery that it somehow doesn't seem like pandering.
In foreign policy, he promises the miraculous: "I will rebuild our military to meet future conflicts. But I will also renew the tough, direct diplomacy that can prevent Iran from obtaining nuclear weapons and curb Russian aggression. I will build new partnerships to defeat the threats of the 21st century: terrorism and nuclear proliferation; poverty and genocide; climate change and disease." He's going to defeat terrorism with "partnerships"; face down Russian and Iranian aggression with diplomacy; and while he's at it, he will end poverty, disease, and changes in the weather. All of these promises are equally implausible.
As to domestic issues, here is what he promises on energy policy:
I will tap our natural gas reserves, invest in clean coal technology, and find ways to safely harness nuclear power. I'll help our auto companies re-tool, so that the fuel-efficient cars of the future are built right here in America. I'll make it easier for the American people to afford these new cars. And I'll invest 150 billion dollars over the next decade in affordable, renewable sources of energy—wind power and solar power and the next generation of biofuels; an investment that will lead to new industries and five million new jobs that pay well and can't ever be outsourced.
Five million new jobs that pay well and can't ever be outsourced! He'll just snap his fingers and the laws of economics will bend to his will.
Oh yes, and he will "cut taxes for 95% of all working families," but he'll "pay for every dime." How? "I will also go through the federal budget, line by line, eliminating programs that no longer work and making the ones we do need work better and cost less—because we cannot meet twenty-first century challenges with a twentieth century bureaucracy." Does anyone remember the Grace Commission in the 1980s or Al Gore's task force in the 1990s? Eliminating "waste, fraud, and abuse" is a perennial promise made by politicians, but it will never produce significant results, because you can't pare down a $3 trillion federal budget by squeezing out dimes.
But the biggest contradiction papered over in Obama's speech is not about Obama's background, his record, or his policies. It is an ideological contradiction. The theme of his speech is "The American Promise." Here is how he defines it.
What is that promise? It's a promise that says each of us has the freedom to make of our own lives what we will, but that we also have the obligation to treat each other with dignity and respect.
It's a promise that says the market should reward drive and innovation and generate growth, but that businesses should live up to their responsibilities to create American jobs, look out for American workers, and play by the rules of the road.
Ours is a promise that says government cannot solve all our problems, but what it should do is that which we cannot do for ourselves—protect us from harm and provide every child a decent education; keep our water clean and our toys safe; invest in new schools and new roads and new science and technology….
That's the promise of America—the idea that we are responsible for ourselves, but that we also rise or fall as one nation; the fundamental belief that I am my brother's keeper; I am my sister's keeper.
So we'll be free to run our own lives—except that we are also required to be our brothers' keepers. We will have a free market—except for the vast network of regulations needed to force businesses to live up to a long list of "responsibilities." We will take responsibility for solving our own problems—except those relating to roads, education, health care, water, toys, science, and so on and on.
In essence, Obama is declaring simultaneous loyalty to individualism and to collectivism, to independence and to dependence, to free markets and to state control.
If you wonder which half of this self-contradictory agenda will win out, Obama doesn't leave you in suspense. He criticizes McCain because "For over two decades, he's subscribed to that old, discredited Republican philosophy—give more and more to those with the most and hope that prosperity trickles down to everyone else." The references to "two decades" and to "trickle-down economics"—a derogatory term for Ronald Reagan's pro-free-market policies—make his meaning clear. It is the free market that he wants us to regard as "discredited."
What he wants us to forget is what was actually discredited two decades ago by the collapse of the Soviet Union. What was discredited was socialism, not capitalism.
That is what makes this the most dangerous election in many years. It has been almost half a century since the left's ideas have had such an intelligent, charismatic, and appealing advocate. He is now preparing to lead the left's effort to reconstitute itself in the first serious way since the Fall of Communism. He must be defeated.
Obama's acceptance speech is likely to be effective, and we should expect him to have a solid "bounce" in the polls now that the convention is over. But there is a way to defeat Obama. His whole campaign is a beautifully presented illusion, and the way to defeat it is to keep hammering on the difference between illusion and reality. Because the more grandiose the illusion, the more thoroughly it will be rejected when it is revealed as a lie.