I will give Barack Obama credit for this: he doubled down on his bet. And it might just pay off.
This speech is probably never going to go down in history. I doubt it will be widely quoted in 50 years. It was a direct attack on McCain on substance, but he took just enough sharp edges off by insisting that McCain is misguided, not evil. It was filled with the kind of red meat that liberals absolutely crave, so the conventional political wisdom will probably question if it appeals to moderates.
If 2004 proved anything, it shows that direct appeals to moderates rarely work. Go re-read John Kerry's acceptance speech. It is masterful at saying absolutely nothing. It's tough to find anything to disagree with in that speech. Which is the precise problem with it.
Americans like having boldness in a president. Reagan was willing to ignore the advice of his own State Department to give the Tear Down This Wall speech. Bush routinely goes forward with boldness and has won more political battles than he has lost, despite routinely having approval ratings lower than 45%. Newt Gingrich saved Bill Clinton's presidency for the same reason that I think Obama's speech was successful tonight: it gave him a political foil.
It came out that Obama used JFK in 1960, Reagan in 1980 and Clinton in 1992 as models for his speech. The JFK parallels are more superficial -- the young candidate, not fully accepted by the entrenched elements of the party coming into the convention, accepts the nomination at a football stadium. The Reagan and Clinton comparisons are more apt: a candidate who is not fully trusted by the electorate making the case that the system is broken, the other side has utterly failed at fixing it, but he will.
Look at the barbs they threw into their speeches.
The Republican nominee-to-be, of course, is also a young man. But his approach is as old as McKinley. His party is the party of the past. His speeches are generalities from Poor Richard's Almanac. Their platform, made up of left-over Democratic planks, has the courage of our old convictions. Their pledge is a pledge to the status quo--and today there can be no status quo. -- John F. Kennedy, 1960.
Four years ago, candidate Bush said, “America is a special place, not just another pleasant country somewhere on the UN Roll Call between Albania and Zimbabwe.” Now under President Bush, America has an unpleasant economy struck somewhere between Germany and Sri Lanka. -- Bill Clinton, 1992
Can anyone look at the record of this administration and say, "Well done?" Can anyone compare the state of our economy when the Carter Administration took office with where we are today and say, "Keep up the good work?" Can anyone look at our reduced standing in the world today and say, "Let's have four more years of this?" -- Ronald Reagan, 1980
They had a willingness to take on the other side, by name, and list their faults and failings. It showed an ability to throw a good political elbow to the ribs. It didn't hold back and showed the confidence both men had in themselves and their message. There is a reason why both men won campaigns that most political observers assumed they had no chance of winning.
Al Gore and John Kerry were unwilling to take those kind of political risks. Both speeches critique Bush obliquely, as if he was going to run out on the stage and demand they take it back at gunpoint. Gore's speech never once mentions Bush by name. Kerry directly addresses remarks to Bush, asking him to ... be optimists and not opponents.
Like most things worthwhile in life, you have to be willing to risk losing in order to win a political campaign. There has to be that impulse to make the clear case for your candidacy at the biggest moments. Senator Kerry was never willing to do that. I will always believe that if he had the courage to pick the VP he could govern with (i.e. Gephardt or Bob Graham) and come to the convention and make the case against Bush, he probably would have won. The central, unstated message of his campaign would have been, "It's time for the grownups to take over in Washington" and it would have worked.
Substantively, I'm not sure how well Obama's message from tonight will resonate with the rural Ohio/Pennsylvania/Michigan/Indiana voters who hold the power to make him the president. But that willingness to attack McCain directly in the biggest speech of his career, with millions watching, shows the kind of political courage that voters tend to respect and reward.