Last week the nation witnessed two top-of-their-game presidential campaigns at work, campaigns as stunningly different as they were impressive — different in ways that told a great deal about each candidate.
On Thursday night the Obama campaign mounted a show unlike any ever seen in a presidential election: a massive stadium filled to the top rows, a stage inside the stadium shooting off fireworks reminiscent of those at the Beijing Olympics’ Bird’s Nest, rock star entertainment, and at the climax, an elegantly delivered acceptance speech marking a moment of true historic importance.
The extravaganza was entirely emblematic of the Obama campaign: painstakingly planned, flawless executed. If, other than metaphorically, politics were war, the Obama operation would be a worthy successor to the tank battalions in which the candidate’s grandfather served during the Second World War. It is a master of set-piece battles.
Over the past two years it has constructed the most productive fundraising machine in the history of American politics, assembled what is reputed to be an equally unparalleled ground organization and stage uncountable numbers of flawless events at which the candidate always delivers an inspirational speech. It has rolled relentlessly across the fields of political engagement, sweeping even the formidable Clinton operation before it. It may not show or need much imagination, but it has proven amazingly effective.
Friday was McCain’s day and a totally different story. The McCain campaign is anything but a juggernaut. Its strength is in maneuver. Again and again over recent months it has shown the capacity to surprise, redefining the election in small ways and large, not once, but many times. From the celebrity spot to the challenge for weekly debates to the vice presidential pick announced on Friday, it has repeatedly stunned the pundits and the opposition.
Alaska Governor Sarah Palin was a brilliant choice for VP on multiple levels. Yes, she has energized the base. One conservative blogger reports stunning enthusiasm in emails to him from conservatives who had been sitting on their hands. At the same time she appears to be appealing to independents, particularly to suburban women. Selecting Palin may prove a key move for capturing Colorado, Nevada and even, some have suggested, Pennsylvania.
But as GOP leaders have been telling every cable news show that would listen, she also helps McCain refurbish his standing as a maverick reformer. On the state level she has been everything John McCain has been on the federal level and then some – opposing sweetheart deal spending, showing no tolerance for corruption of any kind. Putting McCain and Palin together promises to deliver not so much a GOP as an SOB ticket – tough, gruff and spoiling to take on both sides of the aisle.
And it must be said, by every appearance, the driver behind all these clever moves and innovative strategies appears to have been McCain himself. Twice now he has shaken up his campaign team, removing or reassigning aides, looking for talent to fit the tasks of the moment – and each time he appears to have got the results he wanted.
In contrast, Obama’s campaign staff has been stable, even during rough patches — so stable as to raise a question: did Obama create it, or did it, in some way we haven’t yet grasped, create Obama. In other words, is it the candidate’s political machine or someone else’s, with the candidate serving as its face and voice?
By Sunday night, one poll (CNN’s) was showing the race all but tied again, as it had been at the start of the Democratic convention. With the near cancellation of the start of the GOP proceedings, McCain has produced another surprise.
But will it be enough to overcome the enormous advantage of resources on the Democratic side, in a year that the public mood is universally thought to favor the out party? If McCain is to beat Obama, he’ll have to produce many more surprises. But with his VP choice and changing his convention, he produced two in three days.
Hold on. It’s going to be a bumpy ride.
Clark S. Judge is managing director of the White House Writers Group, Inc.