Unlike the other speeches of the Democratic Convention, which I caught after the fact on streaming audio, I pulled myself away from the computer and my book deadline long enough to watch John Kerry’s speech. I figured, as a politically-involved American, I owed myself that much.
I thought the speech was excellent — it did what political speeches are supposed to do, which is to sucker-punch the opposition political players while taking care not to coat the voters in splash damage. I think Kerry’s speechwriters threaded the needle very well; people who paid attention to the rhetoric of the speech will find a lot ot think about, and I suspect at this point in time people might actually be paying attention to substance.
The speech was good enough that not even Kerry’s delivery could screw it up. And that’s a good thing, because for most of the speech he certainly tried. The man gives a political speech like an uptight man dances: He’s always off-beat and hesitant. He’s not listening to the beat, which is the reaction of the audience; he was continually stepping on his crowd’s desire to wind itself up. If Bill Clinton had given the same speech, the delegates would have literally torn the roof off the Fleet Center and the vast majority of the RNC operatives would have been weeping at the imminent loss of the election. As it is, I don’t imagine the RNC is very happy — the speech definitely poked some sensitive areas — but based on Kerry’s delivery, they may still be able to convince themselves they’ve got a chance. To be fair to Kerry, he got better as he went along, but it’s clear that he is not, nor will he ever be, the sort of orator that will make the hairs stick up on the back of your neck.
I can live with that. George Bush ain’t exactly a barn-burner either, and indeed the oratorical delivery of these two opponents — the confused mumbling of Bush cs. the soporific competence of Kerry — makes one positively dread their imminent debates: Remind me to tank up on a couple of double lattes before I watch. This is probably the only election year in the history of our Republic in which the Vice-Presidential debates are more anxiously awaited than the Presidential debates; Democrats can barely suppress their glee at the idea of Edwards tearing into Cheney, while Dick stands there and glowers so intently that his jaw shatters from all the tense gritting of teeth. I believe Vegas bookies are already setting the odds for a Cheney stent implosion midway through the debate. We’ll have to see.
But again, I think the speech was solid enough and made its points well enough that the Bush administration is going to have to tack to make up the ground it will lose tonight with voters, tacking which will be made rather more difficult, I expect, by tomorrow’s expected announcement of a $450 billion deficit in the next fiscal budget. The administration spin on this one is that the deficit isn’t going to be nearly as big as they had previously expected, which I imagine is a little like telling someone who had a leg amputated that the good news is that they were able to save the knee. The spin, I suspect, is not going to go well.
More to the point, however, I think that any one who is undecided about Kerry at this point has seen him for what he is. He’s not dashing, but he’s solid; not warm, but not without empathy. He has no rhythm, rhetorical or otherwise; the man, simply put, can’t dance. But there’s a time for dancing. This isn’t it. It’s okay to go with someone who has other things on his agenda.
Kerry did what he needed to do; the speech itself did the rest. Now we get to find out what that’s worth.