This piece originally appeared at joshuatrevino.com.
In assessing Obama’s speech at Invesco, it is useful to compare it to two prior speeches: Reagan’s 1980 convention speech, and Obama’s own 2004 DNC keynote. The former was the last time a self-consciously transformational candidate ran against a party in wholesale control of the national government. (Whether the candidates in question are actually transformational is debatable — but unlike Obama paying homage to Ted Kennedy, Reagan never genuflected before Nelson Rockefeller.) Making this case is more difficult than it may seem, as there is a simultaneous impetus to be appealing and condemnatory. Reagan did it in 1980, mixing the common man’s anger with his natural affability — and Barack Obama did it in 2004, combining sorrowful regret at Republican misgovernment with soaring appeals to America’s better nature. He established himself then as one of the great rhetoricians in an era where they are too few. He also set a high bar that he did not clear today.
Instead of the requisite deft interweaving of righteous indignation and sunny promise that made him a political celebrity in 2004 and propelled him to the nomination in 2008, Barack Obama delivered a surprisingly strident and joyless forty-five minutes of rhetoric. The remarks should have introduced him to the American people, and shown them what the Democratic base sees in him: hope, change, can-itude, or whatever other gauzy quality made him their nominee. What the American people got was less an introduction to Barack Obama than an exposition on what Barack Obama is against. It was fantastic for the base — and especially the left-wing base, which is especially animated by its hate objects — but it was alternately boring and disturbing for everyone else. As Marc Ambinder noted from the stadium, it was basically a primary-season stump speech.
How did Obama come to fail so remarkably, having delivered so often before? The clues lie in the candidate’s character. The remarkable thing about Barack Obama is how much of a cipher he remains: he is excellent at presenting himself as a tabula rasa upon which only virtue may be written, and there should be no doubt that the effort is deliberate. John McCain’s personal flaws are well known, but Obama’s are rather elusive. Still, they exist, and they show most clearly when Obama’s subject is Obama. I first learned of his ego problems when speaking with a former law school classmate of his; and there were glimpses of it for public consumption with things like the “I have become a symbol” incident. It was not till tonight, though, that Obama’s basic internal fragility was put on stark public view. This was the biggest night of his public life, and the defining moment of his historic turn — and what did he talk about?
Barack Obama talked about John McCain.
Take a moment to feed the plain text of Obama’s acceptance speech into a weighted word-cloud generator. You’ll get something that looks like this, and you’ll note that the biggest word — signifying the noun most often invoked — is “promise,” with 32 mentions. Ordinary enough for a political speech. Next is “America,” with 28 mentions, which is also expected. Third, though, is “McCain,” with 21 mentions. It is difficult to overstate how remarkable this is: Reagan in 1980 barely mentioned Jimmy Carter, and Obama in 2004 discussed John Kerry solely because he was keynoting for the man. Set against the light of precedent and the demands of this speech, the relentless focus upon John McCain emerges as profoundly strange.
The only reasonable conclusion is that Barack Obama has built up a sizable resentment toward John McCain. His remarks are shot through with ripostes to McCain-campaign attacks on him: “I don’t know what kind of lives John McCain thinks that celebrities lead,” or, “If John McCain wants to have a debate about who has the temperament and judgment to serve as the next commander-in-chief, that’s a debate I’m ready to have.” The text also serves up counterattacks that can only be described as deeply dumb: are we truly to believe that McCain’s 26 years in elected office are responsible for the tripling, over that same period, of American oil consumption? The squandering — the sheer waste of political capital here — is epochal. We learned something important and disturbing this evening: Barack Obama believes his own press, and when others do not, he takes it personally.
Thus this speech. Thus this, the single most important address of his entire campaign, reduced to a stump-quality attack piece. How invested was Barack Obama in this one? Watch it again. Go to exactly 45 minutes in, as he closes, and turn off the sound for maximum effect. Note what you see. Barack Obama does not smile. His demeanor is grim, tight-lipped, and stern. His brow is furrowed, his face is taut. Twice, for mere seconds, he bares his teeth in a parody of a grin. He stalks the catwalk looking tired, tense, and joyless. Only when his wife and daughters appear, after an agonizing 80 seconds, does he regain humanity. He is a man who, in his own mind, administered a beating — and knows he cannot show how he enjoyed it.
Meanwhile, most of America’s television audience saw this followup ad, with a genial John McCain congratulating Obama. The contrast is more effective for McCain than any attack piece could be — and Barack Obama made it possible.
I wrote before that John McCain has long odds, and they remain so. This race is not over. But it could have ended this evening, and it did not due to the ego-driven indiscipline of the Democratic nominee. He missed his chance to put this away — and in missing it, showed his tragic flaw. What remains is for the Republicans to make that flaw fatal.