Thursday, August 28, 2008

Avoiding an Invesco Fiasco for Barack Obama

Barack Obama's acceptance speech tonight at Denver's Invesco Field at Mile High Stadium represents the challenge of a lifetime.

The nominee's acceptance speech is the year's most anticipated campaign event before the post-Labor Day general election battle begins. For Obama, the stakes are the highest: He's not simply "the candidate of change" because of his biracial background. He's genuinely different in ideology and outlook than any presidential candidate before him. Doubts about his affinity to nation haven't gone away, because the more we learn of him, the more it seems he has something to hide..

Just last night, the Obama camp attacked National Review's Stanley Kurtz as a "slimy character assassin," putting pressure on Chicago's WGN radio station to cancel a planned appearance by Kurtz.
Ben Smith has the report:

The campaign e-mailed Chicago supporters who had signed up for the Obama Action Wire with detailed instructions including the station's telephone number and the show's extension, as well as a research file on Kurtz, which seems to prove that he's a conservative, which isn't in dispute. The file cites a couple of his more controversial pieces, notably his much-maligned claim that same-sex unions have undermined marriage in Scandinavia.

"Tell WGN that by providing Kurtz with airtime, they are legitimizing baseless attacks from a smear-merchant and lowering the standards of political discourse," says the email, which picks up a form of pressure on the press pioneered by conservative talk radio hosts and activists in the 1990s, and since adopted by Media Matters and other liberal groups.

"It is absolutely unacceptable that WGN would give a slimy character assassin like Kurtz time for his divisive, destructive ranting on our public airwaves. At the very least, they should offer sane, honest rebuttal to every one of Kurtz's lies," it continues.
Sean Wilentz, at Newsweek, criticizes Obama from the left, saying that the Illinois Sentor's not made the case for an acceptable liberalism, in the mold of the great Democratic presidents of the 20th century:

Much of Obama's appeal to the left stems from what might be called the romance of the community organizer. Although his organizing career on Chicago's South Side was brief and, by his own admission, unremarkable, it distinguishes him as another first of his kind in presidential politics, a candidate who looks at politics from the bottom up. For the left, community organizing trumps party politics and experience in government. Some even imagine that Obama is a secret radical, and they see his emergence as an unparalleled opportunity for advancing their frustrated agendas about issues ranging from the redistribution of wealth to curtailing U.S. power abroad.

Obama still has a long way to go to describe the kind of liberalism he stands for, how it meets the enormous challenges of the present—and how it will meet as-yet-unanticipated challenges after the election. Nowhere is this more crucial than in the harsh and volatile realm of foreign policy. Last winter, when his candidacy gained traction, Obama's foreign-policy credentials consisted almost entirely of a speech he gave before a left-wing rally in Chicago in 2002, denouncing the impending invasion of Iraq as "a dumb war." That speech, made by a state senator representing a liberal district that included the University of Chicago, and that went unreported in the Chicago Tribune's lengthy article on the rally, was enough to convince many of his supporters that he is blessed with superior acumen and good instincts about foreign affairs. Later comments, such as his promise, later softened, to meet directly and "without preconditions" with the leaders of Iran and other supporters of terrorism, pleased left-wing Democrats and young antiwar voters as a sign of boldness—even as they left experienced diplomats in wonder at such half-baked formulations.

Then, suddenly this summer, Russia attacked Georgia—and Obama's immediate reaction was to call for reasonableness and good intentions and urge both sides to show restraint and enter into direct talks. Unfortunately his appeal sounded almost like a caricature of liberal wishful thinking. It was left to his opponent, John McCain—whose own past judgments on foreign policy demand scrutiny—to declare right away the sort of thing that might have come naturally to previous generations of liberal Democrats (let alone to a conservative Republican): that "Russia should immediately and unconditionally cease its military operations and withdraw all forces from sovereign Georgian territory." Beyond the matter of experience, beyond how thoroughly the two candidates had thought through the situation, the difference highlighted how Obama still lacks a comprehensive vision of international politics.

That Obama's record and statements have created any other impression cannot be ascribed only to his campaign's political skills and the news media's favor. Liberal intellectuals have largely abdicated their responsibility to provide unblinking and rigorous analysis instead of paeans to Obama's image. Hardly any prominent liberal thinkers stepped forward to question Obama's rationalizations about his relationship with his pastor, the Rev. Jeremiah Wright Jr. Instead, they hailed his ever-changing self-justifications and sometimes tawdry logic—equating his own white grandmother's discomfort in the presence of a menacing stranger with Wright's hateful sermons—as worthy of the monumental addresses of Lincoln. Liberal intellectuals actually could have aided their candidate, while also doing their professional duty, by pressing him on his patently evasive accounts about various matters, such as his connections with the convicted wheeler-dealer Tony Rezko, or his more-than-informal ties to the unrepentant terrorist William Ayers, including their years of association overseeing an expensive, high-profile, but fruitless public-school reform effort in Chicago. Instead, the intellectuals have failed Obama as well as their readers by branding such questioning as irrelevant, malicious or heretical.

Can Obama, who lost the large industrial states in the primaries, deal with a troubled economy and become the standard bearer for the working and middle classes—the historic core of the Democratic Party that the last two Democratic candidates lost? Can the inexperienced candidate persuasively outline a new foreign policy that addresses the quagmires left by the Bush administration and faces the challenges of terrorism and a resurgent Russia? Can the less-than-one-term senator become the master of the Congress and enact goals such as universal health care that have eluded Democratic presidents since Truman? On these fundamental questions may hang the fate of Obama's candidacy. In the absence of a compelling record, set speeches, even with the most stirring words, will not resolve these matters. And until he resolves them, Obama will remain the most unformed candidate in the modern history of presidential politics.
I usually take Wilentz's analyses with a tablespoon of salt (he's a leading academic Bush-basher), but I'm pleasantly surprised with his take here.

I can say, though, that there's no gainsaying Obama's historic achievements, which are magnified tonight by the timing of his speech on the 45th anniversary of Martin Luther King's "I Have a Dream" speech of 1963.

Yet, if Obama fails to recognize that we have achieved much of Dr. King's dream of a Promised Land he risks turning the evening into a shaming festival rather than a call to recognize our nation's accomplishments while simultaneously defining an even higher purpose.

I'm confident Barack Obama is skilled enough to know this, and if he can make the sale for a real politics of unity, if he can return to his powerful message of post-partisan, post-racial transformation, he may well avoid the kind of weak performance that only leaves listeners hungering for more.