Michael Gerson

WASHINGTON -- When you strip away the cheap lines and petty attacks from presidential campaign stump speeches, you usually find a deeper layer of ... cheap lines and petty attacks. This rhetorical form generally is not a banquet of insight or a feast of reason. The purpose of these speeches is to excite enthusiasm in a swing state while breaking into the news cycle by exploiting your opponent's most recent campaign stumbles.

But stump speeches -- crafted on the fly at the highest level of a campaign -- reflect conscious political choices that do shed some light on a candidate and his times. Even a vapor reveals the direction of the wind. Two recent stump speeches in Ohio -- John McCain's in Dayton, Barack Obama's in Canton -- will suffice as examples.

In style, the contrast is sharp. McCain is a rhetorical master -- for those who consider the Gerald Ford era as the golden age of Republican speechmaking. McCain is physically vigorous, but his rhetorical approach -- using "my friends" like a stylistic cane -- is dated. His sledgehammer directness fits his personality, but is neither memorable nor inspiring.

Obama's style, in contrast, has worn well. He combines the mild cadences of a preacher with the reasoned tone of a college professor. He is not always eloquent, but he is always fluent, which is easily mistaken for eloquence. Above all, Obama communicates a remarkable self-possession -- a confident self-sufficiency -- that contrasts to the desperate affirmation-hunger of many politicians. No man is an island -- except, seemingly, this one.

In strategy, the closing stump speeches of the two candidates are fairly typical. Obama gives the front-runner speech -- dismissing all criticism in politics as unfair, ungentlemanly, unconstitutional, uncivilized and ungodly, while depicting his opponent as a monster of negativity who "would divide a nation just to win an election." McCain, also typically, positions himself as the relentless battler -- "fight" is his closing refrain -- against the presumptuous, drape-measuring dauphin.

In content, the candidates are delivering economically themed speeches. As opposed to the Obama caricature, McCain is not dishing up red meat on William Ayers and Jeremiah Wright -- though he must be sorely tempted. He is talking about capital gains tax rates, business taxes and government spending. Obama is also focused on the economic crisis, but because he is now campaigning mainly in red states, he adds a few touches of cultural conservatism -- the need for educational "accountability" and parental responsibility. But this is a gesture, not an agenda -- merely a glimpse of what a more creative, moderate Obama campaign might have been.


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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