With unity as the mandate for the Democratic Convention, a little known State Senator from Illinois, Barack Obama, took the ball and ran so far with it that this listener thought he was witnessing Obama’s conversion to the Grand Old Party. Remove all the references to John Kerry, along with the not-so-veiled digs against Bush, and the remaining speech would have fired up a Republican audience.
Touting his home state as “the land of Lincoln,” praising the Declaration of Independence as “the true genius of America,” and repeatedly affirming that Americans “don’t expect government to solve all their problems,” Obama sounded less like the Democratic Party and more like the current president. Even his comments on education, which emphasized parental responsibility and higher student expectations, were right out of Bush’s playbook. Add his concern that Americans couple their devotion to individualism with a belief that “I am my brother’s keeper,” and Obama looked like a cheerleader for compassionate conservatism.
That Obama spent most of his speech singing the glories of America must have shocked the Democratic elite. Instead of mouthing the multicultural platitudes of Jesse Jackson’s Democratic Party, Obama pledged allegiance to “one American family.” He went so far as to exclaim, “There’s not a black America and a white America and Latino America and Asian America—there is the United States of America.” Jackson stood up and applauded at all the right moments, but he was clearly sitting down and harrumphing on the inside.
Despite his call to unity and hope, Obama established his Democratic bona fides through several criticisms of George Bush’s presidency. But these amounted to just so many throw-away lines and “straw men” arguments. Republicans have little to fear that any of these blows will land when the gloves come off after the convention. Bush has not used “faith as a wedge to divide us,” spoken or acted as if war was “the first option,” or ignored unemployment or “the health care crisis.” And if Obama really thinks the Bush presidency has been “this long political darkness,” then Jimmy Carter’s quagmire of a presidency becomes a political black hole.
Obama is widely referred to as a rising star in the Democratic Party. But if Barack Obama, whose first name means “blessed of God” in Swahili, is destined to be God’s gift to Democrats and Republicans alike, he will need to show how the principles of equal freedom and opportunity lead to the policies he has espoused so far as a state senator. His support of Roe v. Wade, affirmative action, tax increases, and increased gun controls—none of which were mentioned in his 15-minute ode to American exceptionalism—says more about his Democratic roots than his seemingly Republican convictions.
Can Obama’s political diversity leaven the Democratic Party? Time will soon tell, given that he is running unopposed for the U.S. Senate. One scenario is that a few years of “going along to get along” with the likes of Daschle, Clinton, and Pelosi will lead him to shed his Lincolnian rhetoric in exchange for a fast-track promotion to a cabinet-level position or even vice-presidential consideration.
For now, his proclamation of a “politics of hope” contrasts greatly with the typical pessimism of the Democratic Party. That it played so well with the Democratic rank and file bodes well for the immediate future of American political discourse.
Lucas E. Morel is associate professor of politics at Washington and Lee University in Lexington, Virginia and is an adjunct fellow at the Ashbrook Center.