At the Virginia Jefferson-Jackson dinner, he led with a straight electability argument, tied to a more down-to-earth version of his change-our-politics argument, and followed by a laundry list of policy promises. None of it was new, but the proportions were changed. By word count, the policy section was approximately 40% of the speech, compared with slightly more than 10% on Super Tuesday. This speech was a business case for a candidate claiming he can win a broad mandate and use it to push through legislation less distorted by lobbying interests than any other.
Obama began by taking on the mantle of nominee presumptive, moving John McCain up from Exhibit B to Exhibit A of Honorable Policymaker Corrupted by Washington Politics. After the obligatory "good man" gesture, he hit him first on policy and then on process, i.e. flip-flopping for political gain:
Now, John McCain is a good man, an American hero, and we honor his half century of service to this nation. But in this campaign, he has made the decision to embrace the failed policies George Bush’s Washington.
He speaks of a hundred year war in Iraq and sees another on the horizon with Iran. He once opposed George Bush’s tax cuts for the wealthiest few who don’t need them and didn’t ask for them. He said they were too expensive and unwise. And he was absolutely right. [McCain has actually spoken of a 100 year troop presence in Iraq, along the lines of our presence in Japan and Korea, with whom we're not exactly at war, but never mind...]
But somewhere along the line, the wheels came off the Straight Talk Express because he now he supports the very same tax cuts he voted against. This is what happens when you spend too long in Washington. Politicians don’t say what they mean and they don’t mean what they say. And that is why in this election, our party cannot stand for business-as-usual in Washington. The Democratic Party must stand for change.
This time Hillary was Exhibit B of Politician Corrupted by Process -- the better to demonstrate that she was like McCain, or maybe a bit worse with regard to politics if not policy:
It’s a choice between debating John McCain about lobbying reform with a nominee who’s taken more money from lobbyists than he has, or doing it with a campaign that hasn’t taken a dime of their money because we’ve been funded by you – the American people.
That allowed a segue to the electability argument - brought home to the local audience:
While arguing electability would normally come across as politics-as-usual, Obama's casting his as hardheaded idealism. His appeal to independents and Republicans is not born of triangulation; his policy pronouncements are liberal straight down the line. That's the best argument for his straight-talk pitch: he's succeeding beyond his liberal base in spite of his policies, not because of them.
And it’s a choice between taking on John McCain with Republicans and Independents already united against us, or running against him with a campaign that’s united Americans of all parties around a common purpose.
There is a reason why the last six polls in a row have shown that I’m the strongest candidate against John McCain. It’s because we’ve done better with Independents in almost every single contest we’ve had. It’s because we’ve won in more Red States and swing states that the next Democratic nominee needs to win in November.
Virginia Democrats know how important this is. That’s how Mark Warner won in this state. That’s how Tim Kaine won in this state. That’s how Jim Webb won in this state. And if I am your nominee, this is one Democrat who plans to campaign in Virginia and win in Virginia this fall.
Next came the policy prescriptions, nicely salted with arguments as to why he'd be able to get them effected -- including past accomplishments (expanding health coverage and passing middle class tax cuts in Illinois), others' endorsements (Kennedy's statement of faith in his health care commitment), quick-draw contrast with Hillary (why mandates don't help), and promises to get things done in a timely matter (health plan passed in first term, yearly minimum wage hikes).
He ended with a deft two-step that syncs up two halves of his argument: that Democrats have the right policy prescriptions, but that Democrats have been almost as corrupted by political process (over some undetermined period of time) as Republicans have. His solution, he admits implicitly (and refreshingly), is as much a product of the historical moment as of his own abilities: because the electorate has swung left, Democrats can come out of their defensive crouch and advance an unabashedly liberal agenda. Dropping the defensiveness is itself a cure for "broken politics," first because it means being less beholden to polling, and second because reducing the power of lobbyists is a natural Democratic platform plank, since Democrats by creed defend the poor and middle class against the monied interests that wield the vast bulk of lobbying power.
Spelling all that out would make for dull speaking. Obama does it by emphasizing that 'this is our moment" and by reminding us that "hope" has been realized by Democratic leaders in other such moments:
This time, Obama managed to make hope seem pragmatic.
This is our moment. This is our time for change. Our party – the Democratic Party – has always been at its best when we’ve led not by polls, but by principle; not by calculation, but by conviction; when we’ve called all Americans to a common purpose – a higher purpose.
We are the party of Jefferson, who wrote the words that we are still trying to heed – that all of us are created equal – that all of us deserve the chance to pursue our happiness.
We’re the party of Jackson, who took back the White House for the people of this country.
We’re the party of a man who overcame his own disability to tell us that the only thing we had to fear was fear itself; who faced down fascism and liberated a continent from tyranny.
And we’re the party of a young President who asked what we could do for our country, and the challenged us to do it.
That is who we are. That is the Party that we need to be, and can be, if we cast off our doubts, and leave behind our fears, and choose the America that we know is possible. Because there is a moment in the life of every generation, if it is to make its mark on history, when its spirit has to come through, when it must choose the future over the past, when it must make its own change from the bottom up.
This is our moment. This is our message – the same message we had when we were up, and when we were down. The same message that we will carry all the way to the convention. And in seven months time we can realize this promise; we can claim this legacy; we can choose new leadership for America. Because there is nothing we cannot do if the American people decide it is time.
Feb 10: Obama decries the 47% solution
Feb. 5: Hillary's Speech was Better than Obama's
Obama: Man, those Klinton Kids are Something
Obama Praises Clinton, and Buries Him