Michael Gerson

WASHINGTON -- The setting invited comparisons to John F. Kennedy. The anniversary invited comparisons to Martin Luther King Jr. The stage invited comparisons to Zeus.

The remarks themselves invited comparisons to every Democratic stump speech of the last 20 years.

In substance, Barack Obama's convention speech could easily have been given by Al Gore or John Kerry -- and, in various forms, was given by Kerry and Gore. It was all in there: the lunchbox economic populism -- based on the assumption that most Americans are filling their lunchboxes with scraps from dumpsters. The attacks on corporations, millionaires and other sinister job creators. The touching faith in the power of diplomacy.

This is not to say that these themes are ineffective -- both Gore and Kerry almost became president with them. And these nominees did not possess even half of Obama's political skills.

In tone, Obama's big speech was small, partisan, often defensive and occasionally snide. "I've got news for you John McCain," he exclaimed. "We all put our country first." It was a pattern for the night: I'm not weak -- you are the one who hasn't killed bin Laden with your bare hands. I'm not inexperienced -- you are the one who is old and out of touch. None of this assault was made with grace or wit.

And some of the attacks were simply unfair. Is it really credible to blame McCain for a tripling of oil imports during his time as senator? What does it mean that McCain "won't even follow (bin Laden) to the cave where he lives"? That McCain is cowardly? That he knows where bin Laden hides, and won't tell the rest of us? That he doesn't believe in fighting al-Qaeda?

In craft, Obama's speech was aggressively unexceptional, as if he set out to be unmemorable. The applause lines were generally flat: "Enough!" "We are a better country than this!" There was little effective humor. Ronald Reagan drew lines from Clint Eastwood movies: "Go ahead, make my day." Obama drew his tag line -- "Eight is enough" -- from a 1970s sitcom. (The song, you might remember, goes, "Eight is enough to fill our lives with love.")

In delivery, of course, Obama was masterfully confident -- which increasingly seems like the self-assurance of a man who believes mainly in himself.

By the last firework of the Democratic convention, Obama's transformation was complete. He had systemically taken the advice of every cynical, hard-edged Democratic political consultant. Get rid of the airy, cerebral rhetoric. Pitch your message to the focus groups, not the historians. Go for the old man's jugular.

Michael Gerson

Michael Gerson writes a twice-weekly column for The Post on issues that include politics, global health, development, religion and foreign policy. Michael Gerson is the author of the book "Heroic Conservatism" and a contributor to Newsweek magazine.
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