OBAMA AND EDWARDS. Edwards said better things, Obama said things better. That's my summary of their two speeches. Both have matured as candidates -- and considerably so. Obama gave the best speech I've seen him give -- and I was at the 2004 Democratic convention. In what's a major maturation of his message, the rhetoric attacking cynicism and disengagement has evolved from a floating meta-commentary reasserting the tawdriness of the process into an actual political message. Speaking at the same Hilton where, during the DNC Winter Convention, he received weak reviews after an address too focused on the theatre of politics, Obama this time brought his critique of apathy back from the heavens and into the halls of Congress. When the citizens turn away and the voters accustom themselves to disappointment, he argued, a vacuum opens up. And politics, like nature, abhors vacuums. So the lobbyists and the special interests and the lawyers rush in to fill it. This only further wrecks citizen trust in the government, further alienating the populace, and opening more space for self-interested, narrow elements to control our politics. This is why Obama's movement, his 20,000 person events, matters. Because the citizens must return to squeeze out the interests, and only he's proven able to spark that sort of civic revitalization.
The summary of Obama's speech doesn't quite do justice to its power: For that, read Addie below. I genuinely felt bad for John Edwards, who had to follow what seemed an unmatchable performance. But he did, and if the reactions in my immediate environs were representative, for many, his focus on concrete policy changes bested Obama's attention to a reengaged citizenry.
Unlike Obama, Edwards did not lash himself to a particular theme. His was not a grand commentary on politics, except in this way: We need bold change, and it must be be now. His speech was nothing but that, a litany of bold changes he would make, or at least fight for, if elevated into office. It was not as inspiring as Obama's address, but it was much more concrete, and far-reaching, and in that way, more comforting. As Matt said, he was far better and more direct on foreign policy than he's been in past addresses, and he laid out a long scenario connecting energy conservation to a collapse of Middle Eastern dictatorships (without petrodollars, they'll need to invest in education and development) and widespread investment in Africa (from Europe). It was interesting stuff, and plausible, if a bit hard to recount. Easier to explain was the focus on humanitarian works as a centerpiece of foreign policy, an argument Edwards fleshed out in some detail, and displayed evidence conviction during.
The underlying message of all his remarks, though, was that much could be done, and there is no reason, either political or substantive, to approach these problems incrementally, or even cautiously. To put the contrast another way, where Obama promised to radically change our politics, Edwards promised to radically change our policies. Those were the choices offered to the conference this morning, and they were good ones.