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June 04, 2008

Final Primary Thoughts
Posted by Michael Cohen

As a student of campaign rhetoric and the author of an upcoming book on the subject tonight presented a true cornucopia of campaign oratory - and the contrast between the three speakers was fascinating.

First John McCain. There really is no nice way to describe this speech. Forget the content for a second; McCain is quite simply an awful public speaker. I've never seen a politician in my life who is so clearly "reading" a speech than McCain. When he smiles; I cringe. There is no passion and little inspiration behind his words - when he speaks one gets the impression that he is seeing his speech for the first time. And from a presentation standpoint, whose idea was it to have a green backdrop with about 200 supporters in the room? I know that public rallies in of themselves do not portend political success, but the contrast between McCain's almost desultory affair and the hysteria of Obama's speaking venue was palpable. If you are undecided voter looking at these two events from simply an aesthetic standpoint, who would you rather be associated with? It's also another sign that McCain has surrounded himself with a lousy campaign staff who don't really seem to understand optics and stagecraft. Hell, was that it hard to get a presidential teleprompter for the presumptive GOP nominee? And it's not like this was an unimportant speech. The speech looked like one you might expect to be delivered in Iowa . . . in December.

As for the content, McCain sounded defensive (actually voicing the words "third Bush term" seemed ill-advised) and ornery. The line "that's not change we can believe in" makes him sound like a cranky old man. In an election where change is the watchword and 81% of the electorate thinks the country is off the rails I simply don't understand this idea of denigrating change as a political theme. Voters are afraid of change when things are going well . . . when things are going badly, not so much. McCain has a very tough road ahead of him, but his campaign really needs to figure out an affirmative message and a compelling narrative that differs from the "other guy is too scary." Otherwise it's going to be a very long summer for McCain.

Hillary Clinton: I'm not sure what to say here. Hillary has done so much in this campaign to inspire millions of Americans, particularly women. And throughout her career she has been a passionate advocate for the issues that she clearly cares about deeply. I have enormous respect for both her accomplishments and her tenacity. But, tonight has to have been one of the lowest moments of her political and professional career. Her speech was, for lack of better words, graceless and petty. Her supporters -- and the party which she sought to lead -- deserved better than this.

Barack Obama: There is so much to say here, I don't even know where to start. How about the historic: the party of the bloody shirt, Jim Crow, Woodrow Wilson, Theodore Bilbo and George Wallace just nominated an African-American to be their standard bearer for President of the United States. Whatever you think of Barack Obama that has to make you smile. (And for what it's worth on a night like this, when history was made and America took a giant step forward in its 230-year tarnished legacy on race relations, it's rather unfortunate that neither McCain nor Clinton felt the need to reference this point). The diversity of the crowd in Minnesota really spoke volumes and I don't want to get too emotional here, but seeing those crowd shots and the black and white faces standing side by side, united in passion and excitement for this candidate, well damn . . . I had to reach for the Kleenex.

As for the speech, it was as usual profound, moving and inspirational. But of course that has been Obama's bread and butter since Iowa. No real surprise there. And I thought his conciliatory words about Hillary Clinton were pitch perfect and rather classy, particularly after her performance earlier in the evening. But one of the striking contrasts with McCain and Hillary's oratory is the extent to which Obama's speeches are structured so effectively; there is such a strong narrative thread of "change" in his speeches, but it was especially true tonight; there is good change he is advocating, there is the bad change McCain wants and then he hits the high notes when he lays out how his vision of change can transform the nation and ensure that America lives up to its basic values. It's just very smart and effective speechwriting.

But something else jumped out to me this evening - Obama was damn feisty. That line about McCain denying his accomplishments was striking (and maybe a bit whiny). Obama is still playing the hope card, but I was struck by how aggressively and almost personally he went after McCain in occasionally populist terms.

Beyond that, the most important element of his speech came on foreign policy - instead of trying to play "tough," Obama really lit into McCain on his support for the war and refused to back away from his anti-war position. Now some of you might say "Duh" of course he didn't back away, but this in itself is quite historic. During the Democratic primaries it makes sense to play to the anti-war crowd, but one would expect that in a general election (and this was the first speech of the general election) an untested Democrat -- who didn't serve in the military -- might try to nuance his way around the issue to neutralize sure to come GOP attacks of softness on national security. But Obama is signaling clearly and unambiguously that he is going to make the war and his opposition to it the centerpiece of his campaign. In short, he is refusing to cede ground on foreign policy and national security.

Most of us weren't alive for the last time a Democrat did that. This is going to present real problems for McCain. His only hope is to dominate Obama on foreign policy, but if he faces an opponent that is willing to fight back on the issue . . . well it's hard to see McCain's path to the White House.

Something else was striking about Obama's Iraq rhetoric - he twice referenced Iraqi leaders and demanded that they solve Iraq's problems. Now some people on this site might accuse Obama of scapegoating the Iraqis, but when voters start to realize that Iraq is going to have an approximate surplus of $70 billion in oil revenue those types of attacks are really going to resonate. Frankly, I usually would be gun shy about such language, but Obama has a point, both politically and substantively. You're going to hear a lot more of this in the next five months.

Finally, as usual he finished very strong and this really speaks to Obama's delivery and his feel for the crowd. He is not just a good orator, he's a good speaker - his ability to rise to a crescendo and sense the rhythm of the audience . . . well that's not something you're taught. He really knows how to leave his audience on a high note.

It should all make for a hell of a race!


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Having BILLARY Clinton as vice president would be the equivalent of having a spitting Cobra as a room mate. You CANNOT control its NATURAL HABIT of spitting and biting. Either way, you get POISON in your blood circulatory system!

Great analysis. And congratulations on the upcoming book!

"well it's hard to see McCain's path to the White House."

While I don't have a dog in the fight, I'd love to post this in November, should McCain win the election.

Is it really so difficult to imagine that John McCain would defeat Obama? Really?

"How can that be? No one I know voted for Nixon!"

The otherwise sublime Pauline Kael, 1972, after Nixon trounced George McGovern who, unlike Obama, served in uniform, was a highly decorated combat veteran (WWII), had enjoyed an accomplished career to federal office, and also opposed a destructive war of choice.

Substitute "Clinton" for "Muskie," "McCain" for "Nixon," "Obama for "McGovern" and "Michael Cohen" for "Pauline Kael" and we might have a deeper understanding of the dynamics playing out in 2008.

We might, were it not for the incumbent Republican President's historically high disapproval ratings.

Presidential elections -- the bromide notwithstanding -- are not about the future. They are, first and foremost, referenda on the perceived performance of the incumbent administration, because voters have much more deeply felt opinions about what they see now than about what they think they might see in four years. In modern elections, the incumbent President has approached Election Day with high disapproval ratings four times: 1952, 1968, 1980, and 1992. In none of these elections did the candidate of the President's party approach 50% of the vote. Before none of these elections was the incumbent President as unpopular as George Bush is now, and before none of them had the incumbent President been unpopular for as long as Bush has been (let alone as he will have been by November).

John McCain, even at his age, is a formidable candidate, more appealing on a personal level than either President Bush and with much greater appeal to voters who disagree with many of his views than most American politicians. On a level playing field, he probably beats Barack Obama.

But the playing field is not level this year; McCain is laboring under an absolutely crushing handicap that no modern Presidential candidate in his position has been able to overcome. His campaign has other disadvantages -- less money than Obama will have, residual dislike of McCain by Bush's remaining Republican admirers, McCain's age, and the fact that Obama (whatever his limitations as a potential President) is himself a very good candidate with an excellent organization behind him. Dwarfing all these, though, is the handicap of being the Republican candidate in a year when most Americans strongly believe the incumbent Republican President has done a terrible job. By November the full weight of this handicap will become apparent, and McCain will have all he can do to keep the race competitive.

I checked Real Clear politics today on a whim, and I noticed that thus far (and with little money spent because he has none), McCain likely would win the vital swing states of Missouri, Florida, Nevada, Michigan and Virginia.

Were Clinton in the race, this might not have been so, but today it is.

Perhaps, Zathras, by November this will have changed due to McCain's poor public speaking skills, his age and any ties to the Bush White House by party. But I get the feeling that Obama might not do as well in the "Purple" states that his supporters seem to believe.

There's a reason Hillary beat the crap out of him in some of these joints, and I don't know if he can overcome what the polls are telling us in places where he won, such as Missouri

But I don't really care. Both McCain and Obama seem like very good souls.

It'll probably come down to NM.

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