Speeches Mattered on Wisconsin’s Primary Night

Scott Swenson

In a week that focused us on a war of words, Wisconsin's primary night continued to underscore consistent themes for the 2008 election; politics as usual won't work.

The presumptive GOP nominee, Sen. John McCain, spoke to supporters celebrating his win in the Wisconsin Primary, saying,

The most important obligation of the next president is to protect Americans from the threat of violent extremists who despise us and our values and modernity itself, they are moral monsters, but they are also a disciplined dedicated movement driven by an apocalyptic zeal.

This quote applies to:

  • A) "Islamic fascists," as McCain labels terrorists
  • B) The social conservative wing of his party
  • C) Both A and B

McCain's victory in Wisconsin has yet to quiet Gov. Mike Hucakbee and social conservative forces insisting McCain follow their lead to declare every egg is a person with rights they deny adult women, as they want to do by ballot initiative in Colorado. They will make him support tax payer funding for failed abstinence programs, throwing good money after bad as a means of preventing the spread of HIV/AIDS globally, as they want to do in Congress. They will force him to flip-flop on his stand against defining marriage as a privilege for certain Americans, using the Constitution of the United States to ensure all are not equal.

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McCain may be talking about terrorists abroad publicly, but with his legendary temper, the double entedre isn't hard to imagine. The GOP battle for its heart and soul continues on the fault line of social issues, the very issues that Ronald Reagan once suggested was the reason the Democratic party of FDR left him. He attracted "angry white men" who became Reagan Democrats and the GOP ruled for a generation.

John McCain is white and his anger is justified as he remakes himself from a straight talker to a man pandering to the GOP base. He is losing Reagan Democrats as Gov. Mike Huckabee and social conservatives increasingly look like caricatures of their former selves.

In the first shots of the general election Sen. McCain attacked Sen. Obama on issues of empty eloquence and inexperience, ignoring that voters are overwhelmingly rejecting negative attacks as well as these specific themes also used against Obama in the primaries. McCain's repeated emphasis on the word "proud" signaled an effort to "Kitty Dukakis" Michelle Obama's remarks about her pride in America as the nation stands up to make real change happen, rejecting politics as usual, for the first time in her adult life.

One difference in 2008 is that none of the tricks from the political playbooks of the 1980's and 1990's seem to be working. Voters are rejecting labels, negativity, identity politics and shallow attacks on character, patriotism and faith, at a time when most people believe the best way to demonstrate patriotism and faith is by working together to heal our nation's wounds, rather than continue the politics of division.

Perhaps the biggest difference in 2008 is that the very social issues upon which the GOP social conservative era was built, have shifted dramatically toward progressives, as patriotism and faith no longer require anger, but hope, and reflect the diversity of people and ideas in this great nation.

In Wisconsin, as he had in the Potomac Primaries one week earlier, and now in a string of ten states consecutively, Sen. Barack Obama proved that he can bring Reagan Democrats home in ways Sen. Hillary Clinton cannot, winning in every demographic, except white women, which he split with her almost evenly.

Sen. Clinton refused to concede publicly, claiming only she is ready to lead on day one in a dangerous world in a program laden speech with little energy. By contrast people stood and cheered when Sen. Obama spoke in his victory speech about specific policies ranging from the war in Iraq to the mortgage crisis, health care to human rights, tax fairness to trade. By combining his more thematic speech with his more programmatic speech, Obama risked challenging former President Bill Clinton's 1988 DNC performance for longest political speech ever (not including Castro), and at the end, people were shouting, just not for Obama to leave the stage as they had for Clinton in 1988.

How the Clinton's will leave the stage in the 2008 election is now an active question for many Democrats after the Wisconsin and Hawaii primaries. The Associated Press used the word "fading" to describe her campaign. Chuck Todd, NBC Political Director, outlined the margins she needs to win by moving forward and how they out pace even Obama's large margins to date. Last night's Wisconsin victory a not-so-close 17 percentage point difference. Sen. Clinton's stump speech in Ohio was interrupted by all networks for Sen. Obama's victory speech in Texas, in what Lisa Caputo, Senior Advisor to the Clinton campaign, admitted was a brilliant political strategic move that literally and symbolically put Obama center stage.

Known as brilliant strategists themselves, the Clintons now face decisions on how to make their case in the remaining contests. Howard Fineman reported that the campaign remains split between sharpening their negative attacks on Obama and preserving Sen. Clinton's image long-term. Her campaign's tactics in South Carolina back-fired dramatically, initiating the Obama momentum, and in Wisconsin, Clinton's claims of plagiarism against Obama were seen by most voters as collaboration, not plagiarism. Collaboration in Washington, building a majority that can break stalemates on important policy issues and put arguments of the past behind us seems to be what Americans seek.

The risk to the eventual Democratic nominee and to progressive ideas on a range of issues, including and especially reproductive health, is great, if the campaign for the nomination reverts to even more negative attacks. It is time for all progressives to unite against the real opposition, as former President Bill Clinton did so effectively earlier this week.

Sen. John McCain is angry because he realizes he cannot win the middle of America if he is pulled too far to the right by Gov. Mike Huckabee, and Sen. Clinton risks all she has worked for to create a progressive majority in the country on a range of issues from health care to women's rights, if her campaign sullies what appears to be the eventual nominee, barring a dramatic turn of fortune.

Hanging in the balance is nothing less than a growing coalition of politically diverse Americans supporting progressive ideas and the prospects of a governing majority that will make social conservatives look like the incredibly shrinking extreme fringe of the GOP many of us have always known them to be.

Change, more than a word, is evident every where you look.

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