More Like This, Please. Much More.
I just finished reading Obama's Tucson speech. I really must go further than Digby and declare it was not only the best speech Obama has given since becoming president, but also one of the greatest speeches given by any sitting president. It was heartfelt, eloquent, beautifully written and paced, and deeply personal while calling all of us to realize a larger purpose: the national goal of establishing a discourse healthy for democracy.
This last issue is important. Among the subtleties of this amazingly subtle speech are the ways Obama denounces the hyper-partisan rhetoric of his opponents without for a moment sounding as if he is making a partisan point. By design, the speech makes it difficult for captial-H History to recapture the specifics of what Obama is talking about, but we know exactly what and who he means - or we think we do, which is one of Obama’s greatest and most exasperating oratorical skills.
Proper analyses of this great speech are surely forthcoming from people far more qualified than this blogger. Garry Wills, who examined Obama's famous race speech by comparing it with Lincoln's Cooper Union address, will, I hope, weigh in. What I'd like to focus on is something about the speech that probably wont get remarked. I also noticed these things during the campaign, and until I understood what was going on, it drove me (not to mention many other people) almost crazy with despair. But I think it ultimately played a central, if usually unheralded, role in Obama's spectacular victory. I’m talking about Obama's uncanny skill at setting traps for his political opponents, traps in which they themselves - ie, not Obama - act foolishly or so otherwise poorly that they disqualify themselves as serious opponents, who emerges from these fiascos looking not only like the only rational choice but, more emotionally, as the only conceivable choice.
It is hard to talk about this particular tool in Obama’s political toolkit because it really does seem that his major opponents, through their own stupid mistakes, have self-destructed. Nor, I admit, can I pin down exactly where Obama's being proactive in his opponents' destruction. But consider for a moment that, when securing his nomination, Obama defeated both Clintons, two of the wiliest politicians alive., In the general election, Obama defeated a war hero and no mean political warrior himself.
All of these opponents made unbelievably bad decisions, seemingly without any involvement from Obama nor did Obama appear to exploit them. Yet… I’ll focus on the 2008 general for a moment.
McCain’s vice presidential choice of Palin - the day after Obama’s Big Night - quickly devolved from a political masterstroke into a major league disaster, both politically and logistically (she was, by many accounts, a distracting nightmare to attend to). Obama sailed above it and McCain looked more and more foolish, and less and less like a serious alternative to Obama. The same thing happened a month later when McCain announced he was suspending his campaign, something he probably thought of as a political masterstroke, putting country about personal ambition and all that. Obama? He seemed to do nothing but shake his head and say he would continue his own campaign. Yet again, McCaain’s foolish stunt backfired. And Obama’s stature as Serious Presidential Material was enhanced.
To be sure, the common wisdom is that McCain self-destructed due to his own foolishness, but amazingly Obama seems always to be in a position to gain and to gain big when a political opponent self-destructs. And when a politician opposes Obama, it's quite striking how often they self-destruct. It just happened again.
As weird and as scary as it is to realize, the only potential Republican presidential candidate with national recognition comparable to Obama is none other than John McCain's gift to the nation. Not that she's the best candidate, or had much of a chance of winning the nomination, just the most visible and most talked about. Now, if there had ever been the remotest chance of Sarah Palin becoming the Republican candidate, it's over. As McCain did in '08 with Obama's nomination, Palin timed her latest to compete with attention with Obama in Tucson. And again, a major political opponent challenging Obama’s desire to be president made a big, big mistake, not only with the timing but with the content. I’m not the only person who thinks there may be no way she can recover from her “blood libel” speech and get nominated.
The principle challenger for 2012 has - as had her 2008 predecessors - seemingly, destroyed herself. The common wisdom is that Obama did nothing to help these extremely cunning political manipulators mess up so badly. I find that very hard to believe.
Exactly how Obama does it is unclear to me. I know that his timing is very unusual, radically so within the current political context. He responds slowly to crises, and very, very calmly. This was, and is, very unnerving to me as an observer; I can only imagine how it struck a hothead like McCain who was directly affected by it. But surely there are other things he does to help bait and spring traps to hoist enemies on their own petard.
In any event, we need to see much more of both of these Obamas, not only the rhetorically compelling Obama but also the politically brilliant Obama, who is oh so clever at outwitting his opponents. Even more important, we need to see a third Obama who has often been rumored but rarely spotted. I’m talking about the presidential Obama who can heed his beautiful words and focus his political genius on something far broader and far more substantive than the mere destruction of his competitors for high office.
Note: As I was finishing this post, I noticed that Digby scheduled a post on Obama and Palin, directly below. It has a very different focus and, if you haven't done so, it is well worth reading.