The Convention: Redefining Change

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Charlie Neibergall / AP

Democratic presidential candidate Senator Barack Obama waves to the crowd at the Democratic National Convention at Invesco Field.

How many words go into an event like the Democratic party convention? They're flakes in a blizzard — a few hit you, and the rest blow by in a blur. Amid that blizzard there was one perfect word, early in Barack Obama's virtuoso acceptance speech, to sum up the thrust of the entire storm.


The sagging Obama campaign comes out of here with a fresh start and a clear message: Throw da bums out. It's a theme with a venerable history in American politics, dating back to Jefferson versus Burr in 1800. Take the ones on the inside and put them out, and put the ones on the outside in. Repeat as necessary.

"Venerable" is not exactly what America expected, though, from a convention that took the strikingly original step of nominating the first African-American to lead a major party toward the White House. Obama entered this race and campaigned through the primaries on the strength of his own biography and promise — a new face offering new politics for a new era. But with little more than nine weeks remaining in the campaign, and the race extremely close, here he is running one of the oldest plays in the book.

That's an observation, not a criticism. Rather than allow this election to be framed as a test of his own readiness or the state of American race relations, Obama wants it to be about George W. Bush, a sour economy, war fatigue and whether a majority of this country is sick enough of the way things are going to take it out on John S. McCain.

Another one-word clue: It was emblazoned in white on what looked like 50,000 deep-blue placards distributed through the enormous crowd listening to Obama's speech in a darkened football stadium twinkling with flashbulbs on a soft summer night. The word wasn't Obama. It was: CHANGE.

McCain may actually have helped by choosing a running mate from way off the radar: Alaska Gov. Sarah Palin, a woman younger than Obama, elected just two years ago. Whether the choice turns out to be inspired or mistaken, it is sure to generate a lot of discussion about McCain's judgment, and the unpopularity of better-known Republicans and fissures in the GOP that turned the veep decision into a minefield for McCain. That fits Obama's strategy perfectly. He wants folks pondering them, not him.

The thrust of this convention wasn't immediately apparent. So many people had said that Obama needed to define himself, to put some pillars under that lovely bridge he sketches across the sky. Convention planners seemed headed in that direction when they devoted the first day to a ho-hum parade of old friends and colleagues who assured America that Obama is "one of us." If Ted Kennedy hadn't dragged himself off his sickbed and into battle like James J. Braddock, Pride of the Irish, battered, whipped, yet indomitable, the day would have evaporated into little beyond the dynamic speech of Obama's wife, Michelle.

Even the second day, the theme was still just a shadow behind a screen. It lay between the lines of Sen. Hillary Rodham Clinton's speech on Tuesday — perhaps the most anticipated speech of the convention. Everyone knew how Obama would sound, but what would she say, after losing such a close fight for the nomination, and bearing all the inevitable resentments and what-ifs and wounded pride that entails? Clinton declared emphatically that she supports Obama, yet afterward many of the conventioneers were annoyed with how she said it. She didn't talk about about Obama's virtues. As several commentators put it, you could have replaced Obama's name in her speech with the name of any generic Democrat. All she seemed to care about was beating the Republicans.

Exactly. Throw da bums out. Makes sense in retrospect.

On Wednesday, Sen. Joseph Biden boiled it down to a simple chant in his speech accepting the nomination as Obama's running mate. McCain equals Bush. "That's not change," Biden repeated again and again as he laced into the Republicans. "That's more of the same."

As strategy, this is probably quite canny. There are two ways to think about change in this election, because neither candidate is asking to be re-elected. In one sense — the one the Republicans are sure to focus on at their convention in St. Paul next week — America is weighing the unfamiliar, unquantifiable change that is Obama. Electing a meteroic black man instead of a seasoned white man could have big consequences or few consequences; either way, no one knows because it has never been done. Obama prefers to focus on a more familiar kind of change, the cyclical dumping of incumbents.

Something is lost, though, in even the canniest strategy. Any time a campaign or candidate decides to run in one direction, other avenues inevitably close. Obama's decision to pursue this convention strategy meant that he would not build those pillars — because people can agree on throwing the bums out while disagreeing on what exactly they want instead. To unite the whole range of dissatisfied voters, he must gloss over topics that might divide them.

Which is why, when Obama offered to "spell out exactly what that change would mean," he proceeded to outline an agenda as soothing as butter on bread. A tax cut for 95% of working families, but not a cent for lobbyists. Jobs for Americans. Energy independence in 10 years. Fuel-efficient cars that are easy to afford. Better insurance at lower cost. Who could possibly disagree?

Left on the altar of the anodyne was a much more interesting convention that might have been. Some truly invigorating change was bubbling just below the surface of this gathering. Young, black Democrats like Cory Booker, mayor of Newark, and Adrian Fenty, mayor of Washington, D.C., talked openly about the straitjacketing effect of special interests on the Democratic party — especially the teachers unions, with their resistance to education reform. It is an opinion that Barack Obama shares, or at least used to share. In his memoir Dreams from My Father, he expressed his frustration at the educational establishment, calling it "the biggest source of resistance" on behalf of "the status quo."

That sort of change wasn't talked about from the podium much, and not at all by Obama. At best it was smuggled in like samizdat poetry in speeches like the one by Massachusetts Gov. Deval Patrick, another of the young black innovators. "Democrats don't deserve to win just because Republicans deserve to lose," he said.

Entirely off-message.

"What the nay-sayers don't understand is that this election has never been about me." Obama declared shortly before the fireworks burst and the confetti flurried. It's one of his favorite lines, and usually it provokes a quibble: Isn't that your name on the buttons and your face on the T-shirts? But as a closing note for this historic convention, it was another selection of perfect words. This is the wager the Democrats have pushed to the center of the table this week: that they can make this election not about him.