08/05/2008 05:12 am ET | Updated May 25, 2011

How to Sell A Transformation

Travel agents often gull tourists into trips like the one Barack Obama just took; nine countries in nine days; each stop just long enough to snap a few pictures, ask a few questions and lose your luggage. Obama's gaffe-free jaunt shows he has two traits tourists and presidents need: discipline and an iron constitution.

As the press waited to pounce on rookie errors, Obama's grizzled opponent was stateside blithely claiming that our first war after 9/11 was Iraq -- that would be Afghanistan, actually -- that the "surge" inspired the so called Anbar Awakening -- Anbar was first by about six months -- and that Iraq borders Pakistan. (Nope)

Obama pictures were great: in a helicopter with Petraeus; at dawn by the Wailing Wall; mobbed in Berlin. Back home McCain walked around like a guy in a grocery store who forgot his list. His age is his enemy, yet there he was in Maine sharing a golf cart with George H.W. Bush. At 84, Bush drove. It made Dukakis in a tank look like Washington crossing the Delaware.

McCain then meandered down to Wilkes-Barre for a listless appearance before a half empty auditorium, then to Columbus where, as Berliners showed Obama the love, McCain lunched at Schmidt's Restaurant Und Sausage Haus, also half empty.

After lunch, McCain praised the cream puffs and riffed on life's injustice: "Well I'd love to give a speech in Germany too ....a political speech ....but I would much prefer to do it as president ...." More and more, McCain speeches sound as if he's muttering to himself.

So why at week's end was McCain within four points nationally and closer in key states like Michigan, Pennsylvania and Ohio? There are many theories: Americans aren't that in to the rest of the world, we're a nation of gloms set to flunk a third straight quadrennial I.Q. test, and of course, race.

The last Democratic presidential candidate to hold this many cards was LBJ -- after Dallas and before Vietnam, running in a strong economy against a perceived extremist. Obama's high cards include a foolish war, a broken economy, a reviled president, an opponent too old for the job. He may win a landslide. He may also lose. Berlin shows how that might happen.
It was some sight, all those Europeans waving our flag, Obama calmly surveying them from above. The speech, aimed squarely at America's foreign policy establishment, was less riveting: the Atlantic Alliance is great; the cold war's just like the war on terror; please Germany, help us out of Afghanistan.

Political speech writers pay great deference to foreign policy advisors, three hundred of whom now advise Obama. Doubtless every last one tells him to be tough and thoroughly conventional. His pollsters and political consultants no doubt concur. Why take chances?

If it sounds familiar, it's the advice Al Gore and John Kerry got. Maybe this time it works. But maybe America won't switch direction without a better explanation; about how the war on terror isn't like the cold war; or how our future lies in fixing and strengthening multilateral relationships and institutions.

If we want America to adopt a new strategy, we must lay it out in fearless detail. That means not spending most of a big speech, or a campaign, validating the false premises of the opposition.
Obama's also spent much of last week quibbling with McCain over the surge, but seldom arguing specifics. Violence has ebbed in Iraq for lots of reasons, including the ethnic cleansing of neighborhoods, the realization that America might not stick around forever, and sheer exhaustion. For all that plus the surge, violence is as bad now as in year two of the war.
McCain has trouble telling Sunni's from Shiites. It's easy. Their big dispute is over a matter of succession following the death of Mohammed. Fourteen hundred years later the fighting's fiercer than ever. If you think it won't be resolved soon, or that we have little to add to the discussion, you probably want our kids home sooner, not later.

Of course the real issue isn't the surge but the decision to go to war in the first place. The reason McCain can't be president isn't that he cast the wrong vote back then; it's that he still thinks it was the right vote. America's unsure of how to get out of this quagmire, hence the word, but it is sure it wants to avoid the next one. McCain isn't at all sure. That's a deal breaker.

Democrats blow presidential elections by shrinking from their best arguments, avoiding specifics and generally pitching woo to the status quo. It's not what transformational leaders do. It's not what a 'party of change' does. It's not what the country wants.

In his Berlin closing Obama envisioned a world working as one to tear down walls of oppression. If the speech's early and middle passages were short on audacity, at least the end was long on hope.

Now that he's home he'll stress domestic policy but he needn't switch topics altogether. In matters foreign and domestic, the country wants to hear more about the nature of the change. He should stop looking back over his shoulder at a dying establishment and tell us.

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