Mile-high political spectacle

Sen. Barack Obama's fiery, seminal acceptance speech set the stage for what will be a fiercely contested campaign.
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Sen. Barack Obama's fiery, seminal acceptance speech set the stage for what will be a fiercely contested campaign.

Some 80,000 jammed Invesco Field in Denver Thursday night, Aug. 28, to celebrate the nominations of Sens. Barack Obama and Joe Biden as the Democrats' national ticket. Sen. John McCain was to announce his Republican running mate Friday morning Seattle time, and Republicans will convene next week in St. Paul, Minn. (Update: McCain's pick is Alaska Gov. Sarah Palin.)

Then will begin what I expect to be one of the most fiercely contested campaigns in many years. I also expect voter turnout to rise markedly over 2004 and, conceivably, to approach an all-time record.

Tensions between Obama and Sen. Hillary and former President Bill Clinton were dampened over the course of the Democratic National Convention in Denver. Dire predictions of divisiveness were not borne out. There were no major conflicts among candidates and factions in the platform, credentials, and rules committees. The party exited the convention more unified than in long memory. The Obama-Biden ticket almost certainly will gain a several-point bounce in polls before next Monday. It will be more strongly financed in the general election than the McCain campaign.

Yet McCain, over his career, has been a resilient fighter. In the past, he has risen to the occasion whenever called on to do so. While the Democratic convention energized Democrats, it also will serve to energize and unify Republicans behind McCain.

An important anniversary

For those of us who came into politics in the 1950s and early 1960s, civil rights was the principal animating issue. I participated in the march on Washington at which the Rev. Martin Luther King delivered his famous "I Have a Dream" speech exactly 45 years ago. Later, I would serve as assistant to Hubert Humphrey, whose 1948 Democratic convention speech changed Democrats' civil-rights posture for all time and who would be principal sponsor of the 1964 Civil Rights Act, would be present at the birth of the Great Society, and would be involved over many years in pressing an economic/social justice agenda forward.

I had no doubt back then that in time the United States would have a black, woman, Latino, Asian, or Native-American president. As it turns out, Obama is the first such American to have gained a major-party nomination and he may, in fact, be our first African-American president. Now that it has happened, the emotional wallop of that event is tremendous. It is a truly historic milestone for us. In later years, I suspect, race, gender, ethnicity, and religion will continue to fade in importance as we select our national leaders. History was made in Denver.

The Democratic message

As the Denver convention unfolded and excitement built, the Democrats' message began to unfold. It was fully expressed in Thursday night's speeches by former Vice President Al Gore and Obama.

All speakers, including Obama, were tough on the Bush presidency and attempted to portray McCain as someone who would simply extend current policy for another four years. But the critiques lacked the toxicity that has characterized partisanship in the Congress over the past several years. Obama, in his speech, called for new civility in the campaign and in public discourse and went so far as to suggest that bipartisan "common ground" could be found on such issues as abortion, gun control, immigration, and gay marriage.

Non-primetime speakers, especially minority speakers, during the convention were notably positive and abandoned the often polarizing rhetoric of such figures as Jesse Jackson and Al Sharpton.

Obama, predictably, stressed economic and domestic issues in his speech. He declared himself ready on foreign policy and prepared to debate international issues with McCain. But time spent on such issues was modest compared to the time Obama devoted to the home front. The Obama agenda, as expressed in the speech, will be hard to enact. He declared that he would make the country independent of foreign oil in 10 years; renew domestic manufacturing; implement new subsidies in several sectors; provide a real and affordable health-care safety net; rescue Social Security; make massive new investments in education; implement tax cuts for working taxpayers; save family farms; and pay for it, in part, through tighter management of government.

Republican critiques

Republicans properly will point out that some of these objectives will have to be deferred or compromised. There will not be enough federal money on hand to address them all simultaneously and equally — not without major tax increases which would throttle economic growth. They also will properly characterize Obama's trade proposals as quasi-protectionist and his education proposals as pandering to teachers unions. They will press Obama hard on foreign policy and national security and attempt to pin him down on specific international issues with which he is not presently familiar.

Yet Obama was careful to talk of addressing national problems through both government action and "individual resonsiblity" exercised by citizens. His was not a simple Big Government message.

As I have written here before, Obama and McCain really do represent two alternative views of government and have big differences on a host of issues. Their fall debates will offer voters a chance to consider and think through their attitudes about these alternative views. The candidates' age difference also give them vastly different outlooks on cultural and other values in the society.

Obama has proved himself an articulate, shrewd, and highly disciplined candidate. McCain is less articulate, can act impulsively, and is famous for undiscipline. Both are tough and determined and fought uphill to get where they are in the course of the past two years.

Nothing to do but tune in Friday morning to learn the identity of McCain's No. 2. Much to follow.


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About the Authors & Contributors

Ted Van Dyk

Ted Van Dyk

Ted Van Dyk has been active in national policy and politics since 1961, serving in the White House and State Department and as policy director of several Democratic presidential campaigns. He is author of Heroes, Hacks and Fools and numerous essays in national publications. You can reach him in care of