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Change v. Convention

Any political convention has its share of contradictions, and this one in Denver is no exception. Speakers include Barack Obama -- and the former president who called his appeal a "fairy tale." The heads of NARAL Pro-Choice America and Planned Parenthood -- and pro-life Democrats Sen. Bob Casey, Jr. and Gov. Bill Ritter. The president of a teachers' union -- and an advocate for vouchers for minority children trapped in failed urban schools.

Actually, I made the last one up. As Fred Hiatt has noted, we're not likely to hear much from the convention podium that would cross the teachers' unions.

The main drama of the convention, however, concerns how Obama will resolve a contradiction at the heart of his candidacy.

Since securing the nomination of his party, Obama has made three major decisions:


First, he has lightened his ideological burden by throwing overboard a variety of liberal views that were useful only during the primaries -- shifting toward the center on policy issues from guns to terror surveillance to Iraq.

Second, when the opportunity has arisen, Obama has attacked John McCain in a partisan manner -- reassuring his supporters that he doesn't consider himself too good for politics. Before leaving for vacation, he accused McCain of taking "pride in being ignorant." Returning from vacation, he ripped into McCain's multiple homeownership.

Third, he chose a running mate known for his Washington experience -- exactly reflecting the conventional wisdom (largely produced by experienced Washingtonians) about his greatest political weakness. I generally like Biden's cheerful loquacity, but the Biden choice was the safest, most reassuring and conventional of the options.

Each of these decisions, taken alone, is politically justifiable. Taken together, they tend to undermine Obama's brand -- a new, hopeful post-partisan politics that moves beyond the old divisions and priorities of Washington. Since securing the nomination as an agent of change, he has readjusted his ideological profile, personally attacked his opponent (intelligence and wealth being inherently personal subjects) and chosen a Washington insider as his partner. When politically pressed, Obama has revealed his inner conventionality.

In some ways this is reassuring. Pragmatism has its uses, as long as it does not consume the conscience. Politics, like water polo, is often rough beneath the surface. And it would be disturbing (at least to me) if Obama became more ideologically radical under pressure. On national security in particular, the range of responsible policy options for a president is actually very narrow -- as any candidate for the highest office eventually realizes.

Yet there is bound to be a political cost when a candidate who rises with the white-hot purity of a comet comes down to earth. And perhaps the polls have begun the reflect it.

Obama's challenge is not hopeless. The best presidential candidates in our history have somehow managed to combine purity and pragmatism. Franklin Roosevelt appealed to the highest ideals of national unity while attacking his opponents ("money changers" in the temple of civilization) with all the tools of the demagogue. John Kennedy's New Frontier speech in Los Angeles included both high rhetoric and some stinging criticism of Richard Nixon (Kennedy accused him of showing "charity toward none and malice for all") -- and Kennedy's choice of Lyndon Johnson was nothing if not conventional.

These were skilled performances on the highest of political tightropes. By the end of this convention, we will see the quality of Obama's footwork.

By Michael Gerson  | August 24, 2008; 10:00 PM ET
Categories:  Gerson  | Tags:  Michael Gerson  
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Next: Remembering Why I Don't Do Conventions

Comments

"To cap off a day of grueling questions, the president and the first lady went to a dinner party last night at Michael Gerson's home in suburban Virginia, reports Jon Ward of the Washington Times. Gerson, Bush's former chief speechwriter, is now an op-ed columnist for The Washington Post."

~ from Dan Froomkin's column, March 20, 2008

Posted by: pali2500 | August 25, 2008 12:26 AM | Report abuse

Hey, you and Fred Hiatt used the same talking point! Isn't that a little awkward?

Posted by: DannyK | August 25, 2008 12:34 AM | Report abuse

Below is a quote: ('cuse it's worth reading twice!)

"Hey, you and Fred Hiatt used the same talking point! Isn't that a little awkward?
Posted by: DannyK | August 25, 2008 12:34 AM"
________

Posted by: Paulie200 | August 25, 2008 2:18 AM | Report abuse

I am amused by Gerson because he is so nakedly partisan. he insist on getting wrong in just the fashion needed to make his opposition look bad, therby showing him to be the one who is bad. No one ripped into McCain for multiple home ownership. He was made fun of for not knowing how many homes he had. This is understandable in Gerson's circle since home ownership is not akin to America's middle class or poor. The rich mostly own at least 2 homes and those who are very rich like McCain and his "sugar Daddy wife" own a big batch of homes.

I am even more amused that McCain thinks it takes an income of $5 miilion per annum to be rich. That is reminiscent of the jerk in Nixon or Reagan's administration who thought back then that his salary of $180,000 placed him firmly in the middle class.

The class war is over. The rich won.

Posted by: Kalpal | August 25, 2008 6:37 AM | Report abuse

The Post gives us more of the Rev. Mike,
When none whatsoever is what we'd all like.

Posted by: penalcolony | August 25, 2008 7:03 AM | Report abuse

The only thing different about Senator Obama is that he is African-American. Now, with Biden, he's being drawn even further into the Insider Circle.

Abandon hope for real change. It ain't gonna happen.

Posted by: mayapan1942 | August 25, 2008 7:33 AM | Report abuse

Without compromise there is no change. How do you ever compromise if you don't start from different positions? Even the Bible has an Old and New Testament.

Posted by: Olive | August 25, 2008 8:01 AM | Report abuse

Obama's brand is raw political ambition and opportunism ...Chicago style - like the pizza - a crazy mess of cheesy dough.

This candidate is a mid-evil combination of The Prince by Machiavelli and the tragic Othello by Shakespeare.

The best news is an early frost in Minnesota and Wisconsin. People that still fill up tanks of fuel oil for their furnace will be experiencing severe sticker shock.

Obama had a choice of accommodating Hillary or stiffing her - so he goes and picks Biden because of his FPDD - Foreign Policy Deficit Disorder.

Posted by: alance | August 25, 2008 8:19 AM | Report abuse

"Pragmatism has its uses, as long as it does not consume the conscience."

But it's disturbing in a candidate whose candidacy is almost entirely comprised of lofty, idealistic and unspecific rhetoric and whose position papers and sparse record is reflexively ideological.

Political pragmatism in an reflexive ideologue and vague-rhetoric idealist means only one thing: a political animal who is effective and experienced mostly at advancing his political game, and little else.

Posted by: AsperGirl | August 25, 2008 8:22 AM | Report abuse

"Pragmatism has its uses, as long as it does not consume the conscience."

___________________________________

Where was your conscience as you willingly pimped for Bush for six long years?

Where was your conscience as you willingly wrote the lies that misled this country into a brutal, deadly war?

And now, as you bleat your sanctimonious (but still indelibly partisan) claptrap, you want to pretend that you are someone of morality and ethics, someone worth taking seriously?

You must be joking.

Posted by: pali2500 | August 25, 2008 8:47 AM | Report abuse

It is quite tiresome to read these complaints. By all Republican accounts, Obama is damned if he does and damned if he doesn't. So the gripe used to be that he was too idealogical; now that he is indicating some pragmatism you won't tolerate that either. The simple truth is that you guys have a hell of a battle ahead of you in promoting your candidate. So let the good fight begin (except it won't be the good fight--it will be more of Rove's abhorrent tactics)!

Posted by: moran in va. | August 25, 2008 8:54 AM | Report abuse

" The heads of NARAL Pro-Choice America and Planned Parenthood"

One would think that one of the benefits of being Democrat during convention season is the relative density of women who are more prepared for fun at the Democratic convention than at the Republican convention.

However I think that this is a year in which one way to get back at any guy you don't like is to slap a "shut up and get on board" sign on his back and kick him out onto the convention floor during the delegate roll calls.

And speaking of moody women, what person will Michelle Obama be tonight?

Will she talk about how much she loves America? How it's a country full of brave, hardworking and hopeful people? With her husband's political "pragmatism", it's unlikely she will not cover herself with waffles, too.

So only evidence of transformative change we can probably ever expect to see from the Obama camp is the total-woman makeover of the woman America has decided it hates. Expect to see her rhetorical makeover compete from hair style to memes.

Now THAT is change I can believe in.

Posted by: AsperGirl | August 25, 2008 9:12 AM | Report abuse

Those people complaining about this writer, in the sociopathic-groupthink-online-campaign to beseige any author who doesn't shill out propaganda for Obama, or who strays outside of Obama campaign talking points, go lurk in Eugene Robinson's lame blog.

These guys at least write full length, coherent blog posts that have meaningful substance instead of shallow, inane stream-of-meme fluff the Obama cult writers put out.

Posted by: AsperGirl | August 25, 2008 9:16 AM | Report abuse

>>But it's disturbing in a candidate whose candidacy is almost entirely comprised of lofty, idealistic and unspecific rhetoric and whose position papers and sparse record is reflexively ideological.<<
Hun, when you stand to the right of Barry Goldwater, public drinking fountains become "reflexively ideological".
This pick isn't hard to fathom.
Biden appeals to blue collar, white Americans thus helping shore up the weakest leg of the Dem base.
He is also widely known and respected in the foreign policy arena, not something McCain or any of his likely VP candidates can claim. Watch for him to pick up the "Republicans lied and people died" drumbeat. He's already positioned himself well for this by explaining his vote for the Resolution on the Use of Force as a result of the lies told to the Senate by the Republicans.
Look for the Dems to highlight the difference in economic status between themselves (Obama and Biden) vs McCain and whichever trust fund baby he picks for VP. If they can frame this election as a contest between the economic elites and normal Americans (and they've done a heck of a job of that so far) it wont be close.

Posted by: Anonymous | August 25, 2008 9:47 AM | Report abuse

I am waiting for Mr Gerson to question Senator McCain's fitness.

While the Republican Party may have no problems with putting forth a Candidate that is of questionable health, think Reagan and Alzheiners in 1984, state secret then, McCain and his mental doozies of this Summer, Party secret today?

We the People deserve a frank open and honest discussion and perhaps some measure of reassurance in the form of brain scans and cognitive function tests.

This isn't a joking matter, or one that invades the privacy person seeking Election to our most public and highest Office.

Thisnk about it folks, the Republican Party, if they have this information, and choose not to share it with all Americans, have the strongest leverage that exists, they would be able to control John McCain on the shortest leash imaginable.

John McCain would realize nothing more than attaining the Presidency while Republican Inc. controls him, one false step, and the medical history surfaces, on FOXNEWS ot the WASHINGTON TIMES and bye-bye John McCain.

Posted by: wmc418 | August 25, 2008 10:41 AM | Report abuse

Gerson's commentary illustrates the intellectual dishonesty of many conservatives. Gerson comments on Obama's "attack" of McCain's intelligence. Calling someone ignorant (as Obama did with McCain) is not the same as questioning their intelligence. I know some rather smart people who are still ignorant. Ignorant means someone is not educated, especially about a certain topic. Someone's ignorance does not necessarily reflect their intelligence. Yet Gerson misrepresents Obama's comment. This is a favorite topic of pundits - set up a straw man and then demolish him. However, it such tactics lack substance...and are intellectually dishonest.

Posted by: jeffie | August 25, 2008 10:47 AM | Report abuse

Does anybody care what Bush's speech writer and constant apologists thinks Obama needs to do? Like you and Fred Hiatt have his best interests at heart? I'm surprised you didn't join in with the look what he did to poor Hillary lament. One could put that right up alongside a replay of McCain yucking it up when his supporter referred to her as the b-word.

Posted by: Sara B. | August 25, 2008 10:49 AM | Report abuse

When Gerson quotes Hiatt, is it incest, cannibalism, or more of a Lambchop/Shari Lewis situation?

Posted by: Bemused | August 25, 2008 10:59 AM | Report abuse

Actually, what Obama said was "It's like these guys [meaning McCain's campaign] take pride in being ignorant." This was in reference to the fact that Republicans were hitting Obama for suggesting that people keep their cars in good repair to save energy - something that would reduce our energy consumption by 3-4%. But this doesn't matter to Gerson, who instead of offering thoughtful analysis, clearly should be working for McCain's campaign.

Posted by: Diane | August 25, 2008 11:19 AM | Report abuse

Change is so foreign to poeple like Gerson and Mccain and all GOP, that anybody call for the smallest change is Called prophet(moses in this case).
So waht we should keep the republicans in power even if they have proven to be incompetent, liars, Hiring just cronies, use every major disaster to rob the country and borrow against future generation.
So what do you offer Mr Gerson you or Mccain ?

Posted by: Tony | August 25, 2008 11:33 AM | Report abuse

Gerson is probably hoping Sen. McCain can somehow pull an upset so his Oil Stock will not sink his retirement funds.

Even if there were, which I do not think there will be, an upset. Sen. McCain will get nothing done since he will not have a Senate or Congress who will listen to him. Lame Duck before he begins!

Posted by: jerry rubin | August 25, 2008 12:53 PM | Report abuse

"...and the former president who called his appeal a "fairy tale." "

It's easy to spot the Republican hack on the page, just look for the lie.

Posted by: Anonymous | August 25, 2008 1:33 PM | Report abuse

Is this fella (Gerson) the best they (Washington Post both-sides recruiters/GOP)can find? Yes, he is! But wait: Save some space between your jaw and the floor for #2, C. Krauthammer. You know he's coming! The least appealing thing about this latest opportunity to rise from the ashes of Bush's policies is the inevitable idiot-savagery of the Republican attack machine. You know it's coming. You think you know what it will sound like. You gird yourself accordingly. But the soul-wilting reality is always more depressing than one can imagine.

Posted by: Phil Scruton | August 25, 2008 2:35 PM | Report abuse

So to make the post partisan list you need to be a partisan a$$? I'm just asking. Between this hack and Hiatt the hack, I guess were just going to get republican spin from here on out. At least I don't pay for this crap.

Posted by: Anonymous | August 25, 2008 3:38 PM | Report abuse

You forgot to mention NAMBLA.

Posted by: Worthy Evans | August 25, 2008 3:38 PM | Report abuse

........We the People deserve a frank open and honest discussion and perhaps some measure of reassurance in the form of brain scans and cognitive function tests.

This isn't a joking matter, or one that invades the privacy person seeking Election to our most public and highest Office.

Think about it folks, the Republican Party, if they have this information, and choose not to share it with all Americans, have the strongest leverage that exists, they would be able to control John McCain on the shortest leash imaginable.

Posted by: wmc418
*******************

Your point is well-taken, but dangerous: too easy to set up arbitrary and deceiving "tests" for suitability. Instead, we just need to encourage people to use their own judgement by raising the questions. Most folks are smart enough to figure out if a candidate sounds "off."

Posted by: abqcleve | August 25, 2008 5:38 PM | Report abuse

Sorry we failed you, Hillary. We should had worked harder - we should had worked smarter. Now we must accept Obama (the modern JFK) as our Commander-In-Chief, tutored by Biden (our new Dick Cheney) ... then again, perhaps not ... and I do approve this message.

Posted by: Louie | August 25, 2008 7:13 PM | Report abuse

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