Monday, September 15, 2008

Witness to history

Republican Politics, American Style
Published on September 4th in Metro Eireann By Charles Laffiteau

After a month of attacks by his Republican opponent, John McCain, which had succeeded in narrowing his lead in national polls, Barack Obama chose last Thursday night 28 August, to finally respond to them. So what do I think about Obama’s response?
Only time will tell how effective Barack’s speech was in answering the Republican attacks on his candidacy, because his audience wasn’t actually the 84,000 people who joined me to listen to his Democratic presidential nomination acceptance speech in Denver’s Mile High football stadium. Obama’s real audience was the record number of 43 million plus voters who were watching it on the US television networks.
So on a warm summer evening, under clear skies and in the shadow of the Rocky Mountains, Senator Obama delivered what I believe was the most important speech of his Presidential campaign thus far. But unlike his keynote address to the 2004 Democratic Convention or his Philadelphia speech on race relations earlier this year, this speech wasn’t notable for its inspirational message. It was however, exactly the type of speech Barack Obama needed to deliver under the circumstances. As such, it may well go down in US political history as one of the best purely political speeches ever delivered.
There is an old saying that “All’s fair in Love and War.” Since many people believe that political contests are very much akin to war, they also use this analogy to justify the use of whatever tactics they think will help them win elections. While the vast majority of American voters decry the use of negative personal attacks on political candidates by their opponents, the fact of the matter is the only reason many politicians continue to use such strategies is because they work. That is because many of the very same voters, who profess not to like these tactics, nonetheless respond to them by voting based on their perception of the truth of such personal attacks rather than on what the candidates’ positions are on the political issues that concern these same voters.
Senator Obama’s message of “Change” is rooted in his belief that for America to move forward and deal with its many foreign and domestic problems, US politicians must move beyond these bitter and divisive personal attacks and instead focus on the issues. McCain himself has espoused a similar approach in years past but, with the US Presidency almost within his grasp, decided to abandon this approach in favour of the same negative personal attack campaign strategy that worked so well for President Bush.
So the challenge for Obama in his speech last Thursday was to respond to McCain’s personal attacks, which are designed to portray Obama as a “celebrity” lacking any real substance who is also “unpatriotic” and an “elitist”, without stooping to the same level as McCain and making similar attacks. The situation reminded me of that facing King Henry V almost 600 years ago at Agincourt in Northern France.
Henry V’s men were exhausted so all Henry wanted to do was sail home, but the French were determined to engage them in battle rather than let them withdraw to England. Forced to engage in battle when he had no desire to do so, King Henry V countered the overwhelming advantages of the French army by turning their offensive attacks against his positions back against them. As a result King Henry won this famous battle even though he and his men had no desire to fight on the grounds of Agincourt.
In a similar vein, last Thursday evening Obama succeeded in hurling all of John McCain’s attacks back against him saying at one point. “If John McCain wants to have a debate about who has the temperament and judgement to serve as the next (US) Commander-in-Chief, that’s a debate I’m ready to have.”
In response to McCain’s claims that Obama was “unpatriotic” because of his political positions including his opposition to the Iraq war, Senator Obama responded “What I will not do is suggest that the Senator (McCain) takes his positions for political purposes. Because the things that we have to change in our politics is the idea that people cannot disagree without challenging each other’s character and patriotism. The times are too serious, the stakes are too high for this same partisan (Republican) playbook. So let us agree that patriotism has no party. I love this country, and so do you, and so does John McCain. The men and women who serve in our battlefields may be Democrats and Republicans and Independents, but they have fought together and bled together and some died together under the same proud flag. They have not served a Red (Republican) America or a Blue (Democrat) America – they have served the United States of America. So I’ve got news for you, John McCain. We all put our country first.”
During the course of his speech Obama also responded to McCain’s “elitist” attacks by noting his upbringing by a single mother who struggled to support her family and the college loans he and his wife needed to use to finance their educations. And in response to McCain’s charges that he was just a “celebrity” with a message of hope that was lacking in substance, Senator Obama went point by point through the various economic, energy, environment, health insurance and tax issues and said very specifically what exactly he planned to do to address them once he became President.
Finally, Barack closed his address by borrowing a line from the “I have a Dream” speech delivered in Washington DC by Dr. Martin Luther King 45 years ago on the same day. “America, we cannot turn back. Not with so much work to be done.”
What Obama did not do was attack McCain’s elite upbringing or any of John’s numerous shortcomings as a person. It will be interesting to see how John McCain responds to Barack Obama’s acceptance speech when he gives his own Republican presidential nomination acceptance speech this evening. I’ll discuss that next week.

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