While Barack Obama has chosen someone who has the requisite gravitas to step into his shoes if called upon to do so, John McCain has demonstrated a flair for recklessness in choosing his running mate.
On Thursday night, speaking to an 84,000 capacity crowd in a sports stadium in Denver and a record shattering 40 million viewers on national television, Barack Obama scored a baseball home run. The next morning, to the surprise of all, consternation of many Republicans and delight of Democratic strategists, John McCain scored a football own goal in his choice of running mate.
The Democrats set out to achieve six things during the four days of their convention and succeeded handsomely on all six fronts: demonstrate unity and dispel the media-driven narrative of a party deeply fractured between the Clinton and Obama camps; introduce the Obamas as ordinary folks far removed from the caricature of angry black men and women; explain why change matters; explain it in bumper sticker or kitchen economics language; draw sharp contrasts with the Republicans and attack the McCain platform; and overcome lingering scepticism in the country about Mr. Obama’s depth, gravitas and readiness to lead.
All six goals were addressed and pursued by a heavyweight cast of characters from day one. For the first task, the most important speakers were Hillary and Bill Clinton on the second and third days respectively. Mr. Obama could not possibly have asked for more emphatic endorsements or better performances from the two in declaring their support for him, promising to work enthusiastically for him, and calling on all their supporters to join in an all-out effort to elect him President. The stakes are simply too high, they said, for everyone who believes in the causes for which the Clintons stand and fight not to transfer their support to Mr. Obama. The message of party unity and harmony, and the risks to the party and its progressive agenda of divisions in a closely contested race, was seamlessly woven also by former presidential candidates Al Gore and John Kerry.
The introduction of the Obamas to ordinary Americans was begun by Michelle on the first night and completed with a video tribute to Barack Obama and then of course his own acceptance speech on the final night. They spoke in simple terms of their struggles as poor kids given extraordinary opportunities by the strength and sacrifices of their families, the resilience of their parents or grandparents, and the social safety nets of the American system. They emphasised the importance of their own children to their daily lives. They spoke of an upbringing characterised by hard work, a world of food stamps and scholarships, and a culture of community service above income-maximising choices for individual gratification. Barack Obama systematically addressed and methodically demolished every single line of attack against him to date. One of his most poignant stories was about his mother, while dying of cancer, arguing with the insurance company over payment for her treatment. Recalling other similar stories, he said he had no idea what sort of lives Mr. McCain thought celebrities led, but this had been his, Obama’s, life.
Some of the key tasks were taken up by the star-studded cast starting with the surprise and deeply moving appearance of Ted Kennedy on the opening night. It was gripping drama at its best as speaker after speaker explained why the last eight years have been wasted opportunities, during which the Republicans have squandered the peace and prosperity inherited from the Clinton administration. There were some memorable lines in the process: from Hillary Clinton’s ‘No way, no how, no McCain,’ Mr. Gore’s confession that he believed in recycling, but not of the Bush administration, and Bill Clinton’s bewilderment that the Republicans should expect to be rewarded for eight bad years with another four years, to Joe Biden’s litany of ‘That’s not change, that’s more of the same’ and ‘John McCain was wrong, Barack Obama was right.’
Senators Biden, Kerry and Kennedy also took up the challenge of contrasting Mr. Obama’s superior judgment on some of the biggest foreign policy and national security choices of recent years with Mr. McCain’s instinctive preference for belligerent rhetoric over measured diplomacy, backed by might when required. Bill Clinton expressed it best: others are more impressed by the power of American example than by the example of U.S. power.
On the final night, Mr. Obama abandoned soaring lofty rhetoric for a politically far more effective speech where he castigated Mr. McCain for being tough on talk but flawed on strategy, threatening to follow Osama bin Laden to hell while refusing to go after him in the caves in which he was hiding, and lacking in the temperament (interesting choice of word, that) and judgment to be President in the 21st century. Noting Mr. McCain’s voting record of 90 per cent agreement with George W. Bush, he said he was not prepared to bet on a ten per cent change candidate. Mr. McCain could not be said not to care, he said; he just didn’t know and doesn’t get it. In addition to his unprecedented tough attack on Mr. McCain, Mr. Obama spelt out what change will mean for the average American taxpayer, worker and consumer for job and social security, petrol and health costs, educational and social opportunities. In each case, he subtly reminded his audience of Mr. McCain’s age. On the opening night, Mr. Kennedy had passed on the torch by rephrasing ‘The dream never dies,’ when his own presidential bid ended decades ago, into ‘The dream lives on’ in Mr. Obama. On the closing night, Mr. Obama ended by invoking Martin Luther King’s ‘I have a dream speech,’ whose 45th anniversary it was, serendipitously for the Democrats given their nominee.
On the surprise choice of Governor Sarah Palin of Alaska as his running mate, Mr. McCain’s initial positives are outweighed by enduring negatives. He managed to crowd out discussion of Mr. Obama’s masterful acceptance speech from the nation’s airwaves; the hot topic of discussion was about the newly announced Republican nominee for Vice President. He cemented his reputation as a maverick, prepared to take bold risks instead of playing safe. And he rallied his own base by picking a solidly conservative woman who is strongly pro-life, a lifelong member of the National Rifle Association, a supporter of conservative appointments to the Supreme Court, a Washington outsider to the point of being unknown, and a committed reformer. Conservatives who had been decidedly lukewarm about Mr. McCain, suspicious of his values and agenda, will be reassured, return to the fold and work assiduously for him in the remaining weeks of the election.
Mr. McCain made a blatant play for disaffected Hillary Clinton supporters in choosing a woman. The last point in the preceding paragraph explains why the move is likely to backfire. The belief is astonishingly patronising towards and demeaning and dismissive of women. The reason for the Clintonistas’ continuing anger at their own party is they believe she was the most qualified, experienced and competent candidate this year, not that she is a woman. For them to be asked to support a Republican ticket that contains a woman ultra-light in experience will enrage them. Now that we know Ms Palin’s 17-year old daughter is five months pregnant, Republican-leaning family values voters will be deeply sceptical about the ticket — it raises so many serious questions about her commitments to family above politics — and question his judgment in choosing her.
Unlike the Democratic primary that pitted several credible and serious candidates against one another, Ms Palin’s choice, to the extent that it is motivated primarily by gender logic, is transparently driven principally by tokenism, and that has to be deeply insulting to all women as well as contrary to the Republican Party’s core philosophy of merit and opposition to affirmative action. The reason this has such a killer relevance is that Ms Palin just does not measure up on qualifications and experience. Mr. McCain had pulled even with Mr. Obama in the polls by relentlessly attacking his thin resume and questioning his readiness to be commander-in-chief. Now, just as this line of attack on Mr. Obama’s credibility as a serious presidential candidate gains traction, the 72-year-old cancer survivor offers someone with even less experience and lower qualifications as somehow prepared to step into his shoes from day one if necessary should there be a medical emergency at 3 a.m. CNN political commentator (and Clinton supporter) Paul Begala noted that to choose Ms Palin to be a heartbeat away from the presidency “is shockingly irresponsible,” proof not of thinking outside the box but out of his mind. There were so many other Republican women with superior intellectual, financial, executive and political skills and qualifications — what was he thinking!
The first executive decision the two presidential candidates have made is their choice of running mates. Mr. Obama has chosen someone known, familiar, reassuring and with the requisite gravitas to step in his shoes if called upon to do so. Mr. McCain has demonstrated a flair for recklessness that will gamble the nation’s future on his desperation to win the election. It should be a no-brainer. But then, as Winston Churchill famously said, the best argument against democracy is a five-minute conversation with an average voter.
(Ramesh Thakur is distinguished fellow at the Centre for International Governance Innovation and Professor of Political Science at the University of Waterloo.)
6 months ago