Tuesday, August 26, 2008

The Democrats' Opening Night

If the purpose of the first night of the Democratic convention was to introduce us to Barack Obama as a human being with a loving family, a strong work ethic, and faith in the American Dream, it was a success. If it was meant to go after the Republicans and tell us how Obama would govern, it left a lot of work unfinished.

Perhaps the opening night was part of a grand plan: introduce the man, then unify the party, then proclaim a vision. Obama is often accused of being inscrutable and abstract, and the first night was clearly aimed at helping voters get to know him.

I'm an imperfect judge of television politics. I always want to learn more about how the candidates will govern, and I suspect that I'm less interested in their personal lives than the average American.

As much as I dislike the personal stories that candidates trot out, they do have impact. I watched George Bush prevail in 2000 on a platform that amounted to little more than "I'm a regular guy."

The key to the Republicans' success, though, is this combination of presenting their candidates as ordinary folks (however implausible that is for Bush and McCain) while vigorously attacking the Democrats and proclaiming their own vision of government.

In a formula that goes all the way back to Nixon, as Rick Perlstein points out in his new book Nixonland, Republicans stoke the fires of division and then present themselves as the only party that can unify the nation and govern.

For Obama to win the election, he'll need to borrow a few pages from the Republican playbook and master the art of going after the opposition.

Obama's speech in Illinois, where he introduced Joe Biden as his running mate, shows that he can hit the Republicans hard and proclaim his own vision of government. But he needs to do it at the convention, too.

For Obama, the key to winning the election is defining the issues in such a way that McCain ends up on the defensive, always explaining and always responding to Obama. Last night, I got a worried suspicion that much of the evening was devoted to defusing Republican charges that Obama is alien and elitist. A bit of this may be necessary, but it will work only if Obama follows later with a strong and specific statement of his own vision.

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