Mirroring this extraordinary political year the conventions of both parties were unusual, unpredictable and given to striking twists and surprises.
Aside from the continuing guerrilla warfare between the Clinton and Obama camps - a media delight - the truly remarkable aspect of the Democratic convention was the stunning spectacle of the nominee’s acceptance speech. Probably not since the Roman Coliseum mounted extravagant triumphs for the return of victorious emperors has the world seen such spectacular pageantry revolving around one man.
Without question the Obama nomination is a historic milestone which certainly justifies a reasonable degree of grandeur. Oddly however despite Obama’s well-deserved reputation for spellbinding oratory, informed opinion concluded that the show was better than the speech.
Throughout the campaign John McCain has struggled to avoid being eclipsed by his opponent’s money, media dominance, and sheer star power. Occasionally his efforts have been rather weak - visiting a German restaurant in Ohio to counter Obama’s entertainment of 200,000 Berliners - but most of his quick-release counterpunching ads have been effective, and they have clearly drawn blood -- notably the brilliant enlisting of Paris Hilton and Charlton Heston to tag Obama as a celebrity lightweight.
McCain, however, surpassed himself with his vice-presidential announcement. The “leak-free” timing - barely a dozen hours after Obama’s acceptance speech - was masterful, and the selection -“surprise” would be a gross understatement - of Sarah Palin turned the whole news cycle upside down and caused a jaded and chronically self-congratulating national media to scramble and rework countless assumptions about the state of the campaign.
Beyond stepping all over any “bounce” from the Obama speech, the Palin selection, when contrasted with the weak and defensive choice of Washington “lifer” Joe Biden, recasts the whole question of who is the real “candidate of change”.
The Republican convention - truncated by the sudden eruption of the hurricane season - sharply contrasted with the doings in Denver. While the Democrats put on a sound and light spectacle - unburdened by any substance - the GOP event was by comparison muted, and even drab, but redeemed by its Spartan brevity and the arresting acceptance speeches of its candidates.
So, in the wake of the two conventions, what can be said about this contest for the world’s most important job?
The dominant reality is the closeness of the polls. Historically Democrats have exited their convention with leads ranging from 16 (Kerry) to 25 (Dukakis) points and then drifted downward. Today the race is virtually dead even. Despite economic distress at home and an unpopular war abroad that had Democrats plausibly dreaming of a 1964-type sweep Obama’s numbers have consistently underperformed what voter identification and generic matchup numbers suggest they should be doing.
There are two reasons for this. The lesser is that in McCain - despite the heartburn he has given conservatives over the years - Republicans ended up with the one and only candidate who could effectively compete in that ocean of independent and weakly partisan voters who decide every Presidential election.
The greater reason however is the continuing mystery that is Barack Obama. Despite unprecedented albeit not-too-probing media focus, Obama remains essentially an unknown commodity. Moreover a significant slice of the electorate harbors abiding suspicion that he is very different from what he claims to be.
Evidence revealing Obama’s true identity is not hard to find. A close reading of his 1995 autobiography - written before he entered politics and therefore surprisingly candid - his associations as a community organizer (ACORN and the Gamaliel Foundation), his record as a state legislator, notably his acquiescence and participation in the notoriously corrupt practices of the Daley machine in Chicago, and various unguarded public and private utterances (e.g. “clinging to guns and God”) unmask not just the Senate’s most liberal member, but rather an extreme radical deeply alienated from and contemptuous of the mainstream culture and value system of the country he seeks to lead.
Only the relentless determination of the national media to hear, see, and speak no evil regarding the “Chosen One” have sustained this stealth candidacy and prevented the American people from discovering the unpalatable truth about Obama. To date only Jeremiah Wright and William Ayers have tumbled out of Obama’s dark closet -- and not even the full story about them.
The truth is that never in our entire history have we had two presidential candidates so utterly opposite in their character, experience, vision, and values. The election will turn on whether this reality is revealed or remains concealed.
William Moloney’s columns have appeared in the Wall St. Journal, USA Today, Washington Post, Washington Times, Philadelphia Enquirer, Baltimore Sun, Denver Post, and Rocky Mountain News.