There seems to be little doubt that Barack Obama will deliver an excellent nomination speech, reinforcing his traditional themes of hope and change. What isn’t clear is whether or not he will use his remarks to go after John McCain directly. The conventional wisdom has long said the nominee should stay above the fray and leave the attacks to the running mate. In Boston, John Kerry followed that line of thinking and only said George Bush’s name two times. We all know how that turned out. In the era of Rove-style politics, the high-road is no longer a realistic path for Democratic nominees. For his speech to have the maximum political impact, Barack Obama will have to use this opportunity to define John McCain. In the process, he could define himself – as a fighter.
There are many benefits to taking on McCain in the speech.
The obvious is that it’s the easiest way to get Hillary’s wavering supporters into the fold. Recent polls suggest that if Obama can just earn the same percentage of Democratic voters as John Kerry did in 2004, he should be able to win handily, due to shifts in party identification. But at the onset of the convention, more than a quarter of Hillary supporters say they will vote for McCain. These voters may not like Obama, but the more they hear about John McCain and his near-universal support of George Bush’s agenda, the better Obama will sound. Hillary and President Clinton laid the groundwork for a mass homecoming in their remarks, but Obama will need to make the closing argument.
Another reason for Obama to go on offense is that he needs to make the Republicans play some defense. Obama’s beloved Chicago Bears made it to the Super Bowl by relying on their defense to score, but that strategy could only take them so far. The Obama camp should identify what it considers to be its best arguments against John McCain, tee them up in this speech and then drive them home every day until the election.
Perhaps the best reason for Obama to mix it up is to let voters see that he is not just a hope-monger, as he likes to joke, but a spirited fighter. This image would undermine the “celebrity” caricature of Obama the Republicans have spent millions promoting. And, getting back to those Hillary supporters, one of the big arguments against Obama was that he wasn’t tough enough to stand up to the Republican attack machine. Here’s a golden opportunity to prove them wrong and allay those fears.
So how does Barack Obama go on offense and score solid points with his remarks? Here are some specific ideas.
Embrace the crowd. One of the memes kicking around is that holding the speech at Invesco plays into McCain’s hands by providing more fodder for their “celebrity” line of attack. The Dems are locked into giving the speech at a 76,000 seat stadium, so rather than fret about whether the massive crowd has a downside, Obama should take a shot at the Republicans for their inability to draw large audiences near the opening of his remarks. Something along the lines of:
“Wow. What a crowd. You know, John McCain and his friends have taken to attacking us for drawing crowds that are too big. Can you believe that? Does that even make any sense? They just don’t get it. They don’t realize that these record crowds are not about me, they are about you and the millions like you who can’t believe what John McCain and George Bush have done to harm our economy, our environment and our standing in the world. You’ve had enough and aren’t going to put up with four more years of this.
“But that’s what they do. They tear others down, because they aren’t offering any ideas to lift this nation up and draw people to their side. Get this. I’m not making this up. The other side can’t even get a lot of their own Congressmen and Senators to show up at their convention, much less draw a crowd like this. Their campaign committee even sent out a memo advising elected officials to stay away for fear that they might be branded as Republicans. All I can say to my colleagues on the other side of the aisle is you’re welcome over here. We hope you and all Americans will join us in this effort to take our country back and get it moving in the right direction again.”
Educate on drilling. At this point, the only issue where the Republicans have a polling advantage over Democrats is on offshore drilling, but this edge is fueled by misperceptions, not the merits of the idea. Obama should tell Americans the truth about offshore drilling – that President Bush’s own energy department says it won’t lead to any meaningful increase in oil supplies for another decade, and even then it would only save pennies at the pump. In doing so, Obama can demonstrate that he is willing to talk straight with the American people, and trust them to make sound judgments based on the facts.
He could then pivot by saying that even though drilling is a bad idea, he’s willing to give a little bit on this front if it means passing a bipartisan energy bill this year that includes dramatic increases in investments in renewable energy. In the process, he should point out that McCain has refused to endorse the leading bipartisan energy bill because of his reluctance to raise taxes on his friends at Exxon Mobil and Hess who have contributed millions to his campaign. This would symbolize another way an Obama presidency would be a break from the status quo: he’s open to compromise and interested in getting stuff done to help the American people, and won’t be a slave to ideology.
Anticipate and inoculate. One big disadvantage facing Obama is that he has to speak before McCain. It’s pretty safe to say that the Republicans will try to rip the bark off of him in Minneapolis. To minimize the damage, mocking these attacks in advance could be an effective tool. Obama could deliver a riff like this:
“If there’s one thing you can say about the McCain/Bush brand of Republicanism is that they are predictable. We know that they are going to roll out a series of misrepresentations and some flat-out lies next week.
“They’re going to tell you that I’m going to raise your taxes. But they’re not going to tell you that I’m only going to raise your taxes if you make over $250,000, and that most Americans will pay lower taxes under my plan.
“They are going to tell you that John McCain’s ready to lead this country, and I’m not. But they aren’t going to tell you that on the on the biggest national security question of our day – whether or not to go to war in Iraq – I got it right, and he got it wrong.”Mention the anniversary. . . not that one. Everyone is making a big deal out of the fact that Obama’s speech falls on the 45th anniversary of Dr. King’s “I have a dream” speech. Obama would be better served by talking about the anniversary of Hurricane Katrina. No event better encapsulates the failure of the Bush administration than the botched federal response to this historic tragedy. What makes Katrina particularly potent is how each candidate responded. Barack Obama immediately traveled to Houston to visit survivors with Bill and Hillary Clinton. A hit tip to the Clintons would surely be well received by her supporters and a nice reinforcement of the notion of party unity. Where was John McCain when Katrina struck? Eating birthday cake with George Bush. You can’t make this stuff up.
All housing jokes, all the time. Every single Democratic speaker should have at least one line taking a dig at John McCain for forgetting how many houses he owns, including Obama. Biden’s seven kitchen tables joke on Saturday was good, but the jokes will work even better if they emphasize the fact that he didn’t know how many houses, as opposed not just the fact that he owns so many. For example, when talking about Katrina, Obama could say, “The Department of Homeland Security didn’t even know thousands were stranded at the convention center, when the images were on TV. That’s like not even knowing how many houses you own. How could anybody be that out of touch?” The furious pushback from the McCain camp tells how damaging this gaffe can be.
The Greatest. One last bit of advice for Obama is that he should use the old State of the Union trick of singling out an audience member. With all the celebrities who will be in attendance, I know the Dems are probably worried about a replay of the Los Angeles debate where every cut away was to an actor or movie executive. But word on the street is that Muhammad Ali will be in Denver. Obama should single him out and say, “Ali is not only one of the greatest boxers of all time, but one of the chief political strategists of this campaign. People have been wondering why we weren’t throwing more punches in the summer. We were just doing the old Ali rope-a-dope. And you know what America, we’ve been conserving our energy long enough. It’s time to starting taking the fight to our opponent and show them what we’ve got, and take this country back. Are you with me?” People know Barack Obama can be a uniter. This Thursday, he will be well served by letting America see Barack Obama the fighter.
Robertson is a former speechwriter for Senator Chris Dodd (D-CT)