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Aug 22, 2008

At the conventions, the candidates must answer a question that every election makes new: What sort of country do we want to be?

By James R. Gaines

Just when you thought there was nothing left to say, Campaign 2008 is finally ready to start.
After the longest, costliest primary season ever, after all the nanoscopic news coverage and the blogosphere’s breathlessly huffing posts, Americans could be forgiven for wishing they could change the channel.
But they won’t. Instead, millions will tune in to watch Sen. Barack Obama and Sen. John McCain provide the traditional opening moments of all presidential campaigns, which come with the candidates’ acceptance speeches at the national conventions.
As in every other election year, Americans will be looking for clues about who these men really are that are asking for their votes.
Although many voters are saying that the election of 2008 is the most important electoral choice in their lifetime, even in boring years, Americans take the convention speeches seriously.
That’s because every presidential election is about competing visions of the future, and the candidates’ acceptance speeches are one way we see what that future could be. American voters get swept up in this quadrennial contest because, despite all that we know about politics and politicians, we still believe that the future can be made.

“Voters want to believe that the candidates are saying what they actually do think:” Watch a video interview with speechwriter Michael A. Cohen.
Author and speechwriter Michael A. Cohen makes the point in his new book, a collection of stump speeches called Live from the Campaign Trail, that mainstream political rhetoric in the U.S. has just two main subjects: “the role of government in the lives of the American people and America’s role in the world.”
The roots of these themes reach all the way back to the cabinet of George Washington, where Thomas Jefferson and Alexander Hamilton clashed bitterly and in secret over how powerful the federal government should be and the proper foreign policy toward, for instance, the French Revolution.
Closer to our own time—at least since Franklin Delano Roosevelt (the first candidate to actually appear at a national convention)—those battles have been fought clamorously and in public. Presidential campaigns are the staging grounds for debate about these two overarching themes, which cross and complicate party lines.
Despite the verbiage already expended in this year’s campaign, the positions of McCain and Obama on these two fundamental issues is less than completely clear. On domestic and foreign policy, McCain is famously a “maverick,” while Obama is an agent of indefinite “change.”
We are likely to know a lot more about them when they deliver their convention speeches—Obama on August 28th, McCain September 4th.
Even now, the candidates’ ghostwriters are combing the archives to find material, and on these pages you will find what they find—an extended argument about what sort of nation and what sort of people we want to be.

In our audio and video timeline from FDR to Bush, watch excerpts from an ongoing debate in conventions speeches past: How much should Washington do?

From isolationism to engagement to interventionism, a spectrum of views on the aims of diplomacy and national defense have been presented at conventions past. In our audio and video timeline, learn how America’s place in the world has been characterized from FDR to Bush.

The scope of American political dialogue is relatively narrow by world standards, since we are blessed with an absence of extremes on both the left and right.
Because their differences are sometimes less than they appear, Republicans and Democrats have thoroughly cross-pollinated over the years. They use the same consultants and the same pollsters. Sometimes they even use the same speechwriters, whose desire for the pungent image or the out-of-the-park-home-run line knows no party affiliation.
As a result, convention speeches are filled with echoes of themes and devices deployed by candidates from the left, right and center, for everything from the most high-minded ideological argument to petty score-settling.

Great Minds: Our interactive video feature displays some tools and tricks from past convention speeches.

How will the next two candidates for president take up this conversation with history? The acceptance speech format favors Obama, a master of the formal address. McCain, much less accomplished as an orator, prefers town hall meetings and other impromptu formats.
Cohen believes that Obama must simply—or not so simply—do what he has done again and again during his travels from Iowa to Minnesota. McCain, he says, must lay out a positive and specific vision for what kind of America he wants to lead.

Watch a video interview with speechwriter Michael A. Cohen, as he explains the role of the convention speech in Obama and McCain’s campaigns.

Pollster and political advisor Douglas Schoen disagrees, at least in part: “I think the perception of the American people is that Obama has not been specific enough. He needs to make clear why we need change and what that change will entail specifically.”
And McCain? “McCain has been very clear on his policies, for example, toward Iraq, Georgia, Russia,” he says.
However, “first and foremost, he has to separate himself from the politics of the past. He has to get to the center in a way that persuades the American people that he is separate and distinct from Bush and has his own approach.
“The real question for McCain is whether he has a broad enough agenda to get support from moderate-leaning Democrats and independents who have doubts about Barack Obama.”
To dispel those doubts and keep those voters, Obama must demystify himself, one commentator wrote recently. As he did in his 2004 convention speech, he has to portray his background as uniquely American. Meanwhile, McCain must defy worries about his age with a show of vigor.
Although advice is coming thick and fast right now to both candidates, when their moment at the podium arrives, all the speechwriters and political consultants will be able to do is watch and learn along with the rest of us.

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I was very impressed by Cohen’s article. For once a writer who wrote an aritcle without obvious bias. Great. Thanks!

Lyn Cote
Sep 7, 2008