The Audacity of Hope

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When John Kerry reported for podium duty last Thursday night at the Democratic Convention, he faced a deceptively simple rhetorical decision: One America or two? This has been an essential Democratic fault line for more than a century. The populist temptation—to frame a campaign as a contest between the "people" and the "powerful"—has never had much success because it is rooted in resentment, even when it is camouflaged with a smile, as it was by John Edwards last Wednesday night and, less felicitously, by Al Gore in the 2000 campaign. The idea of an expansive, inclusive United States of America—a vision presented elegantly on Tuesday night by Barack Obama, the Kenyan-Kansan Senate hopeful from Illinois—has always been the straightest path to the country's heart, as Bill Clinton proved in 1992. These days, the choice has little to do with policy. Edwards and Obama, Clinton and Gore differ on few issues. But there is no more basic strategic or spiritual decision a politician can make: One America or two? A unifying campaign or a divisive one? Kerry last week artfully and astutely chose one America.

His speech—snoozy on the page, rousing in the hall—didn't offer any grand arguments. But the challenge of the moment was about demeanor, not substance. Kerry had to present himself as a plausible, positive—and not unpleasant—leader. His success was evident in the mostly mingy responses of his opponents. He rushed through the speech, some said. He didn't defend what Republicans describe as his liberal-liberal-liberal record in the Senate, said others. To my tired ears, the speedier tone was a refreshing change from the molasses pomposity of Kerry past. And I doubt that we'll see George W. Bush explain or defend his "Bring 'em on" or "Mission Accomplished" moments when his turn comes on Sept. 2. Those who wanted Kerry to produce an answer for the endless calamity in Iraq should ask themselves, What could he have said? What other politician or academic expert or commentator has produced a plausible solution? For good or ill, the broad outline of Kerry's position on Iraq does not differ from the President's. It does, however, differ in nuance—in its reliance on diplomacy rather than unilateralism and, for future military actions against al-Qaeda, in its reliance on covert intelligence and special operations rather than conventional military assaults. Kerry is not going to bug out of Iraq or abandon the broader war against Islamist radicalism. He even outflanked the President on the right by proposing a larger military. As the campaign progresses, we'll see whether the President outflanks Kerry on the left by bringing some troops home.

The speech climaxed a week of subtle transformation for the Democrats. If Clinton's party successfully appropriated Republican issues like crime and welfare reform in 1992, Kerry's party has appropriated elements of G.O.P. style in 2004, especially two deeply un-Democratic traits: promptness and discipline. Each night I would check my watch as such wildly garrulous performers as Clinton, Teresa Heinz Kerry and John Kerry concluded their remarks, and each night the time was the same: a minute or two shy of 11 p.m. The anti-Atkins rhetorical diet—no red meat—was strictly observed. That gave rise to a fair amount of grousing: How can you defeat a sitting President without making the case against him? The answer came on Thursday night. The convention had been carefully choreographed to leave the best moments for the nominee. Kerry not only made a forceful case against Bush without seeming angry or resentful but also challenged the President to make a crucial decision of his own: One America or two?

American populism has always had two faces: economic and cultural. Economic populism produced some valuable reforms—a progressive income tax, the Federal Reserve System, antitrust legislation—but it proved inseparable from cultural populism, which has been nonstop ugly. The angry farmers of the 1890s were always a bit too eager to put the adjective Jewish before the word banker, too easily led into know-nothing crusades against immigrants and black people. The more extreme elements of the Republican Party have updated some of these cultural-populist impulses. Their version of the people vs. the powerful is the people vs. the liberal elite. It should be noted that Kerry did not directly mention abortion, gay marriage, affirmative action, gun control or any of the other Republican wedge issues. President Bush now has to decide whether he will. It should also be noted that Democrats suddenly have a social wedge issue of their own—embryonic-stem-cell research, an issue whose mention roused the sort of cheering that the Equal Rights Amendment used to evoke at Democratic Conventions. Republicans will be hard pressed to explain their complicated religious objections to this potential medical breakthrough. In the end the Democrats emerged from the week ready for battle and reassured that their candidate isn't a stiff. Some were even experiencing what Obama called, in the most gorgeous phrase uttered all week, "the audacity of hope."