His speechsnoozy on the page, rousing in the halldidn't offer any grand arguments. But the challenge of the moment was about demeanor, not substance. Kerry had to present himself as a plausible, positiveand not unpleasantleader. 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 nuancein 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 dietno red meatwas 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 reformsa progressive income tax, the Federal Reserve System, antitrust legislationbut 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 ownembryonic-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."