By Gil Troy
Presidential campaigns make for compelling stories because they are so dynamic. In 1960, Richard Nixon was the obvious, experienced favorite over that rookie upstart John F. Kennedy. Americans began 1984 reading polls showing that Walter Mondale would whip the incumbent president, Ronald Reagan. And four years later, Michael Dukakis enjoyed a commanding lead over George H.W. Bush throughout the summer. Everyone who believed this summer’s hype about Barack Obama’s inevitable victory forgot this basic history lesson. So now that the Olympics are over, the running mates are being selected and the conventions are convening, the chaotic, intense, mercurial and delightfully unpredictable general presidential campaign can begin.
In some ways, both of the presumptive nominees are stuck in the same narratives that ended up in their respective party victories; yet this time, only one can win. John McCain spent much of the nomination campaign being eulogized, criticized, and counted out, only to surge when it counted on his way to a surprisingly easy victory. Barack Obama enjoyed a happy hurricane of hype after his Iowa victory, only to watch the predicted cakewalk get complicated as criticisms of him mounted and his opponent fought back tenaciously but ultimately unsuccessfully.
Still, no matter how self-confident he might be, watching the doubting Thomases proliferate cannot be fun for the presumptive Democratic nominee. Whether he wins or loses, this pre-convention period will be remembered as Barack Obama’s lost summer of missed opportunities. Rather than breaking away from McCain in a grand push toward political immortality, Obama is entering the campaign appearing to be just another political mortal, with a surprising number of vulnerabilities.
The modern presidential campaign is a struggle over competing story lines. For the last few weeks, the Republicans have been able to shift the plot-line away from talk about this being the Democrats’ year, to talk about how could the Democrats appear vulnerable in what is supposed to be a Democratic year.
Next week, despite the inevitable Clintonesque distractions, Barack Obama has an opportunity to seize control of the campaign narrative once again. He will start with his vice presidential choice. As George W. Bush acknowledged when he chose Dick Cheney, from the electorally insignificant state of Wyoming, in modern campaigns vice presidents are props. Obama’s choice will help shape the Obama story, as will general perceptions of the management of the convention. But for someone who has come so far so fast on his oratory, the big moment will remain Obama’s acceptance speech. Not one to shy away from the challenge, Obama has upped the ante historically, by choosing to deliver his speech on the 45th anniversary of Martin Luther King’s “I have a dream” speech. Obama has upped the ante dramatically, by shifting the venue to a 70,000-seat stadium.
When delivering the speech, Obama will not only be competing with Dr. King. He will be competing with himself, trying to outdo his rhetorical brilliance four years ago at the 2004 Democratic National Convention. The stakes are high. Given that the Republicans meet right after the Democrats, the Democratic bounce from the Convention could be minimal. Obama has to deliver big time to jumpstart his campaign and remind Americans why so many rushed to nominate him last spring.