Using Bees To Effect Vengeance

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Wednesday, July 28, 2004
I watched Barack Obama's speech [text, video -- thanks ToT] to the Democratic National Convention last night, and was inspired and uplifted, as so many others appear to have been. I taped it for the mrs., and made her watch it when she got home from rehearsal. The second viewing helped me clarify what I found so special about it.

Obama's delivery was masterful of course -- a touch of the preacher's cadence, but more like a sincere, impassioned, yet perfectly poised professor. And his biography -- discussed in a matter of fact way that never felt exploitative -- somehow enables us to see afresh what America is all about...and that makes us feel good. His stirring refutation of the red state/blue state dichotomy was truly inspiring, and something surely all Americans can embrace. He came across as a smart, sincere, impressive person with his feet on the ground and his heart in the right place.

But to me the real secret was the section in which Obama did the typical liberal politico litany of the union workers, the working couple struggling to pay for healthcare, the smart kid without the money to go to college...and then turned it around.

Don't get me wrong. The people I meet in small towns and big cities, in diners and office parks, they don't expect government to solve all their problems. They know they have to work hard to get ahead and they want to. Go into the collar counties around Chicago, and people will tell you they don't want their tax money wasted by a welfare agency or the Pentagon. Go into any inner city neighborhood, and folks will tell you that government alone can't teach kids to learn. They know that parents have to parent, that children can't achieve unless we raise their expectations and turn off the television sets and eradicate the slander that says a black youth with a book is acting white. No, people don't expect government to solve all their problems.

This is a paragraph of genius. Here Obama did what Clinton did in '92 and which -- inexplicably -- Democrats have failed to do since then: he acknowledged the role of personal responsibility in solving social and personal problems. This is *the* silver bullet for attracting independent and Republican voters, and it is exactly where the Democratic Party needs to go.

Whereas liberals tend to feel like conservatives fail to take account of any systemic factors -- that they "blame the victim" -- the left commits the same sin at the other extreme. The truth is in between, as anyone whose common sense has not been subordinated to ideology can tell you. This paragaph was such a refreshing change from all the other convention speeches, most of which boiled down to "Elect us and we'll fix it." Instead it said, "Government can't fix it -- it can only empower people to fix it themselves."

The line about not wanting tax money wasted says, in one line, "1. I am not the conservative caricature of a tax-and-spend liberal. 2. The conservative stereotype of poor people as shiftless reprobates hooked on the welfare-state teat is false. 3. We're all the same, and this internal division is keeping us down."

The "black youth is acting white" line is Obama's own little Sister Souljah moment. It's an African-American challenging his own community -- and it signals to whites that he rejects the political correctness which can hamper attempts to even diagnose -- let alone fix -- social problems. Instead, it says, we take responsibility for our own problems, and you're wrong if you let people convince you otherwise. The line reflects an extremely sophisticated and complex understanding of racial politics.

All the Democratic Party has to do to regain its footing is to truly internalize the idea of government reinforcing and enabling personal responsibility -- to make it the leitmotif of their philosophy of governance. The mrs. tells me that Republican commentators today were grumbling that thast the speech was not a real Democrat speech, that it stole from Republicans...a very revealing response. They're scared of Obama, and that's why.

Clinton talked about personal responsibility, but never fully explored its potential as an overarching theme. If Kerry and Edwards emphasize personal responsibility in this election as strongly as Barack Obama did in his speech, they will win. If not...well, Obama has already got it figured out. I can't wait to cast a vote for him.


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