Character Study

Barack Obama has given lots of great speeches -- about his personal story, about hope, about change, and about race, to mention a few of his topics. Last week, I asked whether Obama would use his convention speech to offer an argument for progressivism and a critique of conservatism, pointing to a commencement address he gave in 2005 at Knox College as a model.

I have to confess that I wasn't expecting him to take the advice, given that he has carefully eschewed ideological argumentation in favor of high-minded talk of bipartisanship. But it turned out I was wrong. Not only did he make an ideological case, Obama did something even more important to his electoral fortunes. For the first time, he devoted a significant portion of a speech to directly critiquing the character of John McCain.

Twenty-three centuries ago, Aristotle wrote that there are three modes of persuasion: logos (facts and logic), pathos (emotion), and ethos (argument based on the good character of the speaker). The last, he insisted, is the most powerful. This is something Republicans have known for decades. They may talk about policy, but their primary appeal revolves around character. Their candidates are presented as reg'lar fellas who talk straight, love their wives, and tear up at the sight of a fluttering flag. When it comes to their opponents, they don't argue that Democrats should be rejected because they have unworkable or unwise plans. They argue that Democrats are weak elitists who sympathize with our enemies.

We've seen this play out so many times that by now it's just what we expect from a presidential campaign. And up until recently, Obama seemed to be offering only half an ethos argument. He told a story about himself and his character, but his argument about McCain was mostly about policy (even if it was as powerful a policy argument as one could make, namely that McCain will continue the policies of George W. Bush).

But things took a turn when McCain was unable to recall how many houses he owns. The Obama campaign quickly put up an ad mocking the gaffe and using it to argue that McCain is out of touch. It was personal and tough, as was the one that followed, featuring a video of McCain and George H.W. Bush (he of the famous unfamiliarity with supermarket scanners) tootling around in a golf cart.

But despite the standard "I'm Barack Obama and I approve this message," it's still one thing to hear a character criticism from an announcer in an ad and another to hear it coming from the candidate's lips. That's what the 38 million Americans who watched Obama's speech (the largest such audience in history) got on Thursday night.

What Obama did so well in his convention address was taking the raw material of policy and turning it into an indictment not just of what John McCain wants to do but of who John McCain is. "John McCain has voted with George Bush 90 percent of the time," Obama said, a point that has been made many times. But then he made a new argument: "Senator McCain likes to talk about judgment, but really, what does it say about your judgment when you think George Bush has been right more than 90 percent of the time?"

This was followed by the character critique that is likely to be the centerpiece of the Obama campaign going forward, the argument that frames McCain's policies not as mistakes but as an outgrowth of his personal shortcomings:

Now, I don't believe that Senator McCain doesn't care what's going on in the lives of Americans. I just think he doesn't know. Why else would he define middle-class as someone making under $5 million a year? How else could he propose hundreds of billions in tax breaks for big corporations and oil companies but not one penny of tax relief to more than 100 million Americans? How else could he offer a health care plan that would actually tax people's benefits, or an education plan that would do nothing to help families pay for college, or a plan that would privatize Social Security and gamble your retirement? It's not because John McCain doesn't care. It's because John McCain doesn't get it.

Even Obama's challenge to McCain on national security was about character. He didn't say, "Let's debate who has the better plan," he said, "If John McCain wants to have a debate about who has the temperament and judgment to serve as the next commander in chief, that's a debate I'm ready to have."

These kinds of criticisms reflect an understanding that voters don't enter the voting booth with a carefully constructed checklist of issues, scoring candidates according their policy proposals. They come to their decisions through a much fuzzier process, one whose result is a gut feeling about who both candidates are. While we tend to think of character criticisms as necessarily unseemly, the truth is that no candidate wins the White House without them.

Core Democratic voters eager for Obama to tear into McCain were cheered by the character case he made. There was much else for them to love -- the laundry list of progressive policies, the jab at insurance companies, and the defense of pay equity, to name a few. But mostly, they finally heard Obama make the case for progressivism that has been largely missing from his rhetoric since that 2005 Knox College commencement address I cited last week. Back then, he said this:

In Washington, they call this the Ownership Society. But in our past there has been another term for it -- Social Darwinism -- every man or woman for him or herself. It's a tempting idea, because it doesn't require much thought or ingenuity. It allows us to say that those whose health care or tuition may rise faster than they can afford -- tough luck. It allows us to say to the Maytag workers who have lost their job -- life isn't fair. It lets us say to the child who was born into poverty -- pull yourself up by your bootstraps.

If it sounds familiar, it's because Obama's convention speech on Thursday contained an almost identical passage:

For over two decades, he's subscribed to that old, discredited Republican philosophy; give more and more to those with the most, and hope that prosperity trickles down to everyone else. In Washington, they call this the Ownership Society, but what it really means is that you're on your own. Out of work? Tough luck; you're on your own. No health care? The market will fix it; you're on your own. Born into poverty? Pull yourself up by your own bootstraps, even if you don't have boots. You are on your own.

And following that attack on conservatism, Obama offered up the contrast, an articulation of what Democrats believe:

You see, we Democrats have a very different measure of what constitutes progress in this country. We measure progress by how many people can find a job that pays the mortgage; whether you can put a little extra money away at the end of each month so you can someday watch your child receive her college diploma.

[…]

We measure the strength of our economy not by the number of billionaires we have or the profits of the Fortune 500, but by whether someone with a good idea can take a risk and start a new business, or whether the waitress who lives on tips can take a day off and look after a sick kid without losing her job -- an economy that honors the dignity of work. The fundamentals we use to measure economic strength are whether we are living up to that fundamental promise that has made this country great -- a promise that is the only reason I am standing here tonight.

Then came perhaps the most important rhetorical move of the speech. Obama presented this progressive ideology not just as right and good but as the realization of American values -- or as he called it, "the American promise."

What is that American promise? It's a promise that says each of us has the freedom to make of our own lives what we will, but that we also have obligations to treat each other with dignity and respect. It's a promise that says the market should reward drive and innovation and generate growth, but that businesses should live up to their responsibilities to create American jobs, to look out for American workers, and play by the rules of the road.

Ours -- ours is a promise that says government cannot solve all our problems, but what it should do is that which we cannot do for ourselves: protect us from harm and provide every child a decent education; keep our water clean and our toys safe; invest in new schools and new roads and science and technology.

Our government should work for us, not against us. It should help us, not hurt us. It should ensure opportunity not just for those with the most money and influence, but for every American who's willing to work.

That's the promise of America, the idea that we are responsible for ourselves but that we also rise or fall as one nation; the fundamental belief that I am my brother's keeper; I am my sister's keeper. That's the promise we need to keep. That's the change we need right now.

While everyone who has ever heard a convention speech could have predicted that Obama's would contain praise of the Land of the Free and nods to America's unique place in the world, we've gotten used to Republicans being the ones who define their agenda and philosophy as more fundamentally American than that of their opponents. Obama then brought the argument back around to John McCain, portraying the Republicans' campaign slogan ("Country First") as an insult not just to Obama and other Democrats but to all Americans:

So let us agree that patriotism has no party. I love this country, and so do you, and so does John McCain. The men and women who serve in our battlefields may be Democrats and Republicans and Independents, but they have fought together and bled together, and some died together, under the same proud flag. They have not served a Red America or a Blue America; they have served the United States of America. So I've got news for you, John McCain: We all put our country first.

When he spoke those lines, Obama sounded strong and firm, maybe even a little bit angry. It was the voice of a candidate who was tired of taking crap from the GOP and wasn't going to let himself be bullied like those who came before him. In other words, it was just what Democrats wanted to hear.

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