Politics may be one of the dark arts, but it is an art all the same — and we have seen some masterpieces in recent days.
Both the Obama and McCain campaigns have shown shrewdness, subtlety and discipline in planning and executing their strategies since the Democratic Convention began.
Start with the Democrats. From the low-key likability of the “just folks” first night, through the traditional populist stem winding of nights two and three, and on through the dazzling theatrics of Obama’s closing coronation, the event had a dynamic pace and an engaging story line.
The main speeches were solid and skillfully delivered. Hillary Clinton is twice the orator now that she was at the beginning of her campaign. And together the Clintons couldn’t have been better — or better behaved — in throwing their support behind the nominee.
As always Obama displayed his perfect pitch for the music the spoken word can produce.
It’s true, as many have observed, that Obama’s speech was more prosaic and policy focused — less stirring and transcendent — than some of his earlier efforts. Much of it was a bit of a populist laundry list for center-left voters.
But the amazing spectacle of the Mile-High Stadium happening ensured that the event as a whole couldn’t possibly fall short of expectations. That’s probably why it was done.
But what was most impressive was the consistent, clearly deliberate, restraint of all the big speeches. The full bill of indictment against the Repuplicans was handed down, to be sure, but the anger and indignation with which it was expressed was muted, slightly but unmistakably.
Above all, the Democrats seldom questioned the motives of their adversaries. How often during the week did a leading Democrat acknowledge that Republicans love their country and want what’s best for it, but are simply misguided or inept?
Almost never, at least in the leading speeches, did we hear it asserted that Republicans have sold out or betrayed the American people for the selfish benefit of their fat cat friends.
This “well-meaning but wrong” message is a different tone than we’ve sometimes heard before. It is an Obama tone.
The rage reduction may or may not be good political strategy. The point here is only that it plainly was a strategy, implemented with remarkable discipline.
Now, for the Republicans. The problem they faced is as simple to explain as it was hard to address: How to create some distraction during Obama’s moment, and bring that moment to a quick conclusion, without seeming unsportsmanlike?
One solution, of course, was to roll out a television ad during coverage of Obama’s acceptance speech in which John McCain pleasantly congratulated his rival without a hint of malice. It was a unique and masterful stroke.
For the rest, the running mate piece, it’s unclear what fueled all the veep speculations of Thursday night, so believe in happenstance if you will, but here’s how it turned out:
A tremendous frenzy of guessing and tea leaf reading ensued among media types, and all of the bets about McCain’s veep choice turned out to be wrong. This lent credence to the other story that got repeated again and again Thursday night — that McCain and his people were determined to keep his pick secret, lest a leak rain on Obama’s deserved parade.
But somehow the totally surprising — and, if nothing else, dramatic — choice of Sarah Palin leaked at the break of dawn Friday. It leaked, in other words, like clockwork, at the very first moment when it wouldn’t appear inappropriate.
Result: Some Thursday night distraction, with no mischievous McCain fingerprints, and a subject-changing shocker Friday morning.
The wisdom or folly of the Palin choice itself isn’t immediately clear. But it’s easy to imagine that Democrats will find Palin trickier to attack than Mitt Romney or Tim Pawlenty.
All of this, on both sides, is politics at its sharpest. Who knows what the week ahead may bring.