McCain the Performer, Obama the Bore

Eight years ago, Al Gore, the presidential nominee of the incumbent party, arrived at the Democratic convention a battered candidate, faced with a sizable and stubborn polling gap that had endured for months. He delivered an acceptance speech that was panned for its brevity, hurried pacing and reliance on populist themes strikingly at odds with the moderate image he had spent decades crafting. To political observers, it had been a wasted opportunity.

But the public didn’t see it that way. Almost instantly, George W. Bush’s double-digit advantage was washed away, and for the first time in months, Gore actually tasted the lead. Nor was it some fleeting bounce. By the first week in September, long after his convention, Gore led Bush 49 to 42 percent in a CNN-USA Today poll, and 49-41 in a Newsweek survey. The press took note of the candidate’s sudden confidence and energy and of the large crowds that were now greeting him. For the first time, the election was Gore’s to lose. (Which is more or less what he proceeded to do.)

A similar phenomenon now seems to be at work, with John McCain, fresh off a Republican convention acceptance speech that didn’t exactly win rave reviews, erasing Barack Obama’s lead and—in some polls—even pulling ahead.

There’s a school of thought that the onslaught of McCain-friendly polls this week is nothing more than a simple and temporary correction, a post-convention bounce to balance off the one that Obama received after his party’s Denver gathering. There’s plenty of reason to think that way, but bear in mind the following: With perhaps one exception, there wasn’t a single credible poll released between June 3 (when Obama clinched the Democratic nomination) and the start of the Democratic convention that showed McCain leading this race. But now, for the past four days, McCain had enjoyed leads of at least five points in Gallup’s tracking poll. Like Gore in 2000, McCain has done more than just cancel out his opponent’s convention bounce.

And there is something far more worrisome for Democrats: McCain, again like Gore in those post-Democratic convention weeks of 2000, seems like a candidate transformed. So, for that matter, does Barack Obama—and not in a good way.

All year, McCain has been ridiculed as a tired and listless old man, struggling to attract crowds and create excitement around his campaign. If he won, the thinking went, it would only be because voters decided to reject Obama, thus defaulting into McCain’s seemingly safe (if uninspiring) camp. Obama would be the one speaking to revival-like throngs and setting the issues agenda; McCain would be the old crank warning the masses not to put too much faith in such a naïve kid.

And yet, less than two months before Election Day, it is McCain who is delivering—by far—the stronger stump speech, it is McCain who is coming across better on television, and it is McCain who is setting the agenda, as the “lipstick on a pig” lunacy attests.

Every day since the convention, McCain has delivered the same basic speech. His words are hardly poetic and many of his claims are somewhere between dubious and blatantly dishonest. But this doesn’t really matter. If fact-checkers had the power to sink political candidates, American history would look much different. What matters about McCain’s speech are two things: (1) He has reduced his candidacy to a simple, coherent and digestible set of bullet points, which make for excellent sound bites and which create for the casual listener a seemingly clear idea of who McCain is and what he wants to do as president; (2) his delivery is forceful, punchy and confident – in a word, alive—and its impact is magnified (on television) by the recent arrival, thanks to Sarah Palin, of frenzied crowds at McCain’s events.

Just consider the first three minutes of a McCain speech on Wednesday morning.

After being introduced by Palin, he said, “I can’t wait to get to Washington, D.C., and the pork-barrelers and the big-spenders and the ear-markers and all of the bureaucrats” and then issued a warning to the “do-nothing, me-first, country-second Washington, D.C., crowd” that a “team of mavericks” was on its way and that they would fearlessly oppose corruption—as they always have—no matter if its perpetrated by Democrats or Republicans.

“Country first! Country first!” the crowd roared.

Then, in his newest trick, McCain whipped out a pen and declared that “the first pork barrel-laden, big-spending earmark bill that comes across my desk, I will veto it! You will know their names and I will make them famous and we will stop this corruption!”

When the crowd settled down, McCain noted that, “My opponent—he talks about change. In a short period of time in the United States Senate, he’s asked for $932 million in pork-barrel earmark projects.”

Then it was on to energy, with McCain energetically reeling off a list of possible energy sources like solar, nuclear, clean coal, “and yes, as that sign says over there, drill, baby, drill!”

“Senator Obama says he’s for energy independence,” he continued. “He doesn’t want to drill off-shore! He doesn’t want nuclear power!”

It’s easy to poke factual holes in much of what McCain is saying, particularly on the subject of earmarks, to which Palin was seemingly addicted as the mayor of Wasilla, Alaska. But it may not matter. Every day, millions of casual voters are catching bits of this speech in 15-second snippets while sipping their morning coffee or driving to work. Most of them have a generally favorable opinion of McCain and were programmed long ago to view him as a maverick. So the rhetoric they are hearing rings true, with McCain’s punchy delivery (and the crowd’s raucous response) making it all the more appealing.

Meanwhile, what is Obama’s bullet-point message? He doesn’t really have one. He’s spent the past few days giving detailed speeches about public education policy. In a way, that’s admirable, but the 15-second sound-bite version of this speech doesn’t register with those casual voters the same way McCain’s sound bites do. Glowing reviews from education policy think tanks really aren’t going to do Obama much good right now.

What’s worse, Obama’s delivery on the stump and when facing the press has been terrible. He shows strikingly little passion, litters his remarks with “uhs” and stretches out every fourth or fifth word in a way that deflates the impact of his sentences. But his biggest sin is that he lacks a simple, index-card justification for his candidacy, the kinds of powerful and understandable themes that McCain belts out with such intensity several times a day. Why does Obama want to be president? Those busy commuters hearing him for a few seconds on their car radio have no idea.

Not that all is lost for Obama. The voters who will decide this election, for the most part, still like him instinctively, something that most recent Democratic nominees have not had going for them. And they are still inclined to throw the G.O.P. out of the White House. But they also like McCain and they also are inclined to believe that he’s not a typical Republican. The difference, for now, is that McCain is making a much stronger and clearer case to them than Obama is.

This can change. At this point in 2000, Gore also seemed to have finally found his voice as a candidate, and it was Bush whose message wasn’t resonating. For a few weeks in early September, Gore was the clear favorite. Then came the debates and Gore’s sighs and (supposed) exaggerations, and there went his momentum. There’s still time and ample opportunity for Obama to reassert himself—or for McCain to slip up. Tick tock.

McCain the Performer, Obama the Bore