WASHINGTON -- A conservative academic, angered that I had gone on television and criticized John McCain's acceptance speech, vented to a friend: "Whose side is he on anyway?"
How about the side of well-crafted speeches that advocate and explain innovative policy and occasionally surprise you into thought? By these standards, at both conventions, it was the year of speaking conventionally.
Barack Obama's effort was numbingly typical in rhetoric, argument and policy -- the Platonic form of the Democratic stump speech -- designed to diffuse voter concerns about the newness and risks of his candidacy by assuring them that he is indistinguishable from every other Democratic politician. In this he succeeded -- and, in a Democratic year, his approach may yield political advantages. But in the process, Obama squandered an important historical moment, along with the initial promise and idealism of his candidacy.
McCain's acceptance speech attempted to fill the gaps left by Obama's narrow Democratic appeal, avoiding even the appearance of partisanship, and twice offering an outstretched hand to the other party. His criticisms of Republican corruption and spending excesses in the last eight years were politically necessary and obviously heartfelt -- does anyone believe McCain has been happy under recent Republican leaders, whom he regularly used for spitball practice? Again and again, McCain positioned himself as a fighter for the interests of the citizen and the nation against the demands of politics and party, including the Republican Party.
And then the policy came -- like a trickling stream in a wide, dry riverbed. He promised to veto wasteful spending, support community colleges, encourage charter schools and educational choice, cut taxes, build nuclear plants and drill oil wells. All these things may be necessary. None of them are creative, interesting or bold. There was no proposal in the speech that unexpectedly appealed to the political middle, creatively peeled off some Democratic constituency, or boldly modified the Republican brand. Is there anyone who sits in McCain strategy sessions, raises a hand, and insists, "This policy is conventional and weak"?
At one point in the speech, McCain said that Americans are "ambitious by nature." But speeches are ambitious by design and intention. And this speech, on policy matters, was timid.