‘More Than Just Words’


I should start off by admitting that I’m a boring person. I am. That’s why, on the observed Presidents’ Day, I listened to some speeches. Here’s one of them.

“When I first ran for Congress, all the political experts said a Democrat could not win my home district … Together, we proved the political experts wrong.”

There’s only one way this election will be different from any other, speechifies the politician.

“We are going to put the experts wrong again. We are going to win. We are going to win because Americans across this country believe in the same basic dream.”

Interrupted only by enthusiastic cheers, the speaker continues.

“Americans want to live by the same set of rules, but under this administration the rules are rigged against too many of our people. It isn’t right that every year the share of taxes paid by individuals is going up while the share of taxes paid by large corporations gets smaller and smaller. The rules say that everyone in our society should contribute their fair share.”

After some more explanation, the speaker adds as a coda to the “rules” argument.

“Tonight, we reclaim our dream. We’re going to make the rules of life work fairly for all Americans again.”

And toward the end of the speech, a nugget made for a soundbite:

“We want a president who will defend human rights. Not just when it is convenient, but wherever freedom is at risk.”

This just reverberates with typical Democratic pandering, and with a twinge of references to higher American ideals.

And who could deliver such a speech? Whose words are these?

I’ll let you have a few moments to guess. If you promise to start reading again once you finish guessing, I’ll even let you look away for now.

Done? Good.

If you guessed Barack Obama, congratulations. You are phenomenally wrong.

If, on the other hand, you guessed Geraldine Ferraro, the 1984 Democratic vice presidential nominee under Walter Mondale, you hit the nail right on the head. Also, you’re old.

Enriching, almost populist rhetoric is nothing new, especially if it comes from a Democrat.

Ferraro was a vice presidential nominee in the year that some Fresno State grad students were born. As with Obama, the media painted Ferraro as a bit of a novelty act.

As a vice presidential nominee from a major party, she was then just about the closest a woman had ever gotten to being president. These were the years before House Speaker Nancy Pelosi and presidential candidate Hillary Clinton, after all.

On the other hand, to the youngest generation, Obama’s novelty stems from his rhetoric. The media have largely ignored that in favor of his blackness.

This ethnic focus seemed appropriate at the time, didn’t it? He won South Carolina, perhaps the state in the nation with the highest concentration of African-Americans. Then he won Idaho, a state colder and whiter than the inside of a potato. Suddenly, Obama’s blackness doesn’t matter as much.

In recent days, the media has focused once again on his words. Clinton jabs at him, saying that he offers speeches while she offers solutions. The intraparty fracas is back to the subject of words.

Obama responded, quoting Franklin Delano Roosevelt and adding his own stinger.

“‘The only thing we have to fear is fear itself.’ Just words.”

Obama continued, quoting other speeches and speakers. Some supporters say he was passionate. Some critics say he was just angry. Most critics also say he cribbed his “just words” quip from the mayor of the District of Columbia.

But pretty words aren’t what make Obama new and exciting. His ethnicity doesn’t even do that — as Bill Clinton reminds us, Jesse Jackson won South Carolina in 1984 and 1988.

It would simply be foolhardy for Obama supporters to say that the shiniest, most striking thing about Obama was his words. Ferraro had words, didn’t she? Running mate Mondale still lost the election on her behalf.

The new thing about Obama is that he has voters, especially young voters, excited about voting and getting involved.

His speeches aren’t about words. That would assume that he’s more concerned with what he says than what his audience does when, in the end, he’s wholly concerned with getting his audience to vote for him. He’s a politician. Politicians want voters to vote for them.

His speeches are more about creating a movement. His speeches are more about making the electorate enthusiastic again.

Critics latch on to this seeming shallowness, but Obama is more than a pretty face. He has policy, too. If you agree with the Democratic platform, which is a big if, there’s little to be dissatisfied with when considering his proposals. He differs from Clinton only very slightly.

Phil Krugman, a columnist at The New York Times, complains, but his objectivity has just about as much credibility as “Doonesbury.”

The new thing about Obama’s speeches is, at least to American voters of the last few generations, that he doesn’t detail policy. His speeches focus at what speeches do better than anything else — creating a movement. A movement gets people to the polls. A movement got FDR and JFK elected. It also got William Jennings Bryan nominated three times, but that isn’t a fair comparison. Obama doesn’t pander to religious populism.

As far as his speeches create a movement, Obama has largely succeeded. Participation is at an all-time high for most primaries, a good portion of the new voters should be attributed to Obama’s movement.

Democrats are right to worry, perhaps, about the long run. If only Democrats didn’t tend to lose in the short run.

For a Democratic Party that snatched defeat from the jaws of victory in 1980 and 1984 and 2004, not to mention the 1994 midterm election, there is no sure general election even this year. The only way the Democrats could bank on winning the White House this year is if they could somehow create a movement behind a candidate who isn’t outright hated by almost half of the country.

To win in the general election, the Democrats need Obama. Mostly, though, they need his movement.

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