In the Arena

DNC Winter Meeting

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Well, this is pretty interesting. Six Democratic candidates for president making, in effect, their Washington debuts…I want to take a look at the texts before I comment in much depth on this, but I’ve got to say that Obama, Edwards and Clinton–in chronological order–made the biggest impression on the crowd, and on me. (Dodd, Clark and Kucinich were very much second tier rhetorically and in crowd reaction).

Two general observations: these are very good candidates–and I’ve covered Democratic fields (1988, 2000, 2004) where that wasn’t true–and, unlike previous Democrats, they weren’t at all defensive: no need to defend their patriotism or their family values. The atmosphere was serious, confident but not at all cocky.

Edwards was the most passionate of the candidates, Clinton the most conventional and Obama the most cerebral. On matters of substance, there wasn’t–thankfully–much laundry listing, but all three mentioned the need for universal health insurance and an aggressive alternative energy program. All three were critical of Bush’s war policy, as one might expect. But Edwards was pointedly tough on the members of Congress–non-binding resolutions not enough. And Hillary had the most memorable line: If the war is still going on “when” she is inaugurated in January, 2009, “I will end it.” (Hillary also received some light antiwar heckling.)

But there was something quietly stunning about Obama’s appearance that distinguished him from the others–it was morally serious, principled and without the usual red-meat lines. “This is not a game,” he said. The enemy wasn’t each other, or Republicans, but “cynicism.” Cynicism, it seems, was located out in the press corps–the purveyors of showbiz, gaffe-obsessed political coverage. I don’t know if I’ve ever seen a politician take on the trivial tone of political journalism so directly, especially at the beginning of a campaign. It was a profoundly presidential speech–until the end when he said providing “hope” was the real purpose of his campaign, not plans or specifics. But I wonder…can’t you provide hope and specifics? And isn’t showing the courage to tell people things they neeed to, but may not want to, hear essential to give ballast to the “inspiration” and “hope.”

This guy is a spectacularly talented politician. His impact on the crowd was deeper than the other candidates; there was an intense silence as he spoke. I can’t wait to see how this evolves…