The Confidence Man

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Posting for Amy Sullivan

You’d think we’d remember by now. Obama and his aides certainly remind us of it enough. And we already saw this movie last all. But that speech proved once again that this is a candidate and a campaign like none we’ve ever seen before.

That’s not starry-eyed praise. It’s a description. Obama’s willingness–nay, insistence–on breaking so many rules about how presidential campaigns are run is an enormous gamble that may not pay off in November. It does explain, however, why Democrats and pundits and even the McCain campaign are wrong to base their worries and predictions and strategies on traditional political expectations.

Conventional wisdom states that the nominee should stick to the positive, to making a case for himself, and leave the attack-dog work to his surrogates. Instead, Obama just gave the toughest speech of the convention.

Conventional wisdom states that a nominee who faces charges of being “the most liberal Democratic nominee ever” should not use his acceptance speech to give an clear, unabashed defense of liberalism. But listen to this: “Ours is a promise that says government cannot solve all our problems, but what it should do is that which we cannot do for ourselves–protect us from harm and provide every child a decent education; keep our water clean and our toys safe; invest in new schools and new roads and new science and technology. Our government should work for us, not against us.” There are many who will not agree with that statement. But Obama does a better job of making the case for liberalism than any Democrat in a generation. (See this Knox College commencement speech from 2005 for a fuller version of his argument.)

Conventional wisdom states that a candidate probably shouldn’t use his party’s nominating convention for some Sister Souljah talk. But that’s (lightly) what Obama did by reminding Democrats that money is not enough; that individual and mutual responsibility is necessary as well. And by challenging some of their positions on gun rights, abortion, and gay rights.

And conventional wisdom definitely states that if your opponent has spent the summer attacking you for being some sort of messianic celebrity figure, you maybe shouldn’t accept the nomination in an outdoor stadium in front of 84,000 screaming fans–and that after a reprise of’s “Yes We Can” song. But when Obama spoke, that crowd wasn’t shouting his name or waving “Obama” signs. Instead, viewers saw tens of thousands of American flags filling the stadium.

Yes, Obama knows that he needs to counter attacks that he is insufficiently patriotic. But even before Republicans started making that charge against him, there was a renewed patriotic fever on the campaign trail. Starting on the night of the Iowa caucuses and stretching this week, Democratic crowds have been spontaneously bursting into “U-S-A” chants of the sort you ordinarily hear at Olympic events.

Obama opened his speech by essentially reimagining patriotism, insisting that “We are a better country than this.” He built up to a sense of outrage at the abuses he accused Republicans of committing in the country’s name and urged the crowd not to react to the Bush years by blaming the country but by taking it back. “Enough!”

Again, it may not work. “My country, right or wrong” may turn out to be a more appealing message for a key segment of American voters. But that’s part of the gamble Obama’s taking and you have to admire his guts for sticking with it, even in the face of mounting criticism from within and without his party.

Last fall, as Karen has reported, Obama went into a meeting with his top fundraisers, many of whom were freaked out about the fact that he had not gone on the attack against Hillary Clinton, that her inevitability seemed to be set in stone. “We’re up against the most formidable team in 25 years,” he said. “But we’ve got a plan, and we’ve got to have faith in it.”

Tonight, heading into the final leg of a campaign against the GOP, the other most formidable team in 25 years, Obama ended his remarks with a similar instruction. “Let us…hold firmly, without wavering, to the hope that we confess.”