Tonight: No Double Standard

09/28/2008 05:12 am ET | Updated May 25, 2011

It's Thursday afternoon and Democrats in Denver are as quiet as an army on the eve of battle.

It's partly exhaustion. A political convention is no country for old men, but just 14% of delegates are under 36, meaning 14% at most are of an age to party hearty, as in truth nearly everyone here has done since the moment their planes touched down.

The quiet also comes from knowing in a few hours your champion faces a critical test. A month ago, Democrats who'd said there was no way to lose this election began thinking they'd somehow managed to find one. A week in Denver has restored some confidence.

Spirits started lifting the minute Ted Kennedy walked on stage. Since Teddy, we've heard fine speeches by Michelle Obama and Joe Biden and double barreled barn burners by the Clintons. Still, a Thursday Gallup poll has the race tied; other polls give Obama a slim edge.

Barack is a gifted orator. Director Spike Lee told CNN he doesn't worry about how Obama will do tonight, because he knows that, like a great athlete, he'll rise to the occasion. I hope he's right, but Babe Ruth never had this much riding on just one at bat.

Everybody knows Obama can paint portraits. Tonight he must also draw a blueprint. It's hard doing both at once. He also needs to connect intimately with the American people; hard to do while painting a portrait and drawing a blueprint and even harder while looking out on a live audience of 75,000 from a set that makes 'Aida' look like 'Our Town'.

Of all Obama's tasks, drawing the blueprint may be the one that gets most in the way of the others. A drumbeat has been taken up not only by Republicans and the press but by many Democrats. Its message is that Obama's message is too vague. The pressure is on for him to dispel all this criticism tonight in this toughest of venues.

I agree with the critique of Obama and would apply it as well to most Democrats of this generation. But there's a double standard in this campaign regarding so called substance and it's time someone got called out on it.

Seen John McCain's web site? It has less issue content than a high school sophomore's MySpace page. McCain once blithely confided he knows nothing about economics. Every day he proves he wasn't kidding.

On some of the biggest issues -- take education -- McCain has almost nothing to say. When he does speak out, it is to say almost nothing. Let's just look at one example, health care.
McCain's entire health care program is a tax credit to people who purchase their own. To help finance it he'd make those getting coverage at work pay taxes on it. For millions of Americans it would be a financial calamity. Coming with no real cost containment and with his new tax cuts for the wealthy it would be a calamity for the U.S. Treasury as well.

No one seriously presses McCain on any of this. At the same time pressure is on Obama to spell out every detail of proposals already far more developed than any of McCain's. It's time for the press and all of us to take stock and hold the two campaigns to one standard.

In the speech of his life, Obama need not risk losing the silken thread of his rhetoric in the numbing detail of his policies. If he's looking for an example there is none better than the one set last night by the Big Dog himself, Bill Clinton.

I once helped write speeches for Clinton but as I've said before it was like handing sheet music to a jazz musician. Clinton can turn a stadium into a living room in a matter of minutes. No one's better at distilling complex issues into clear choices.

It's hard to be a party of change, let alone a leader of a genuine transformation. New truths take longer than old lies to explain. You don't do it with complexity or abstraction. You simplify. You need to stake out your major positions, not annotate your every program

Tonight, Barack Obama faces as tough a challenge as any speaker ever dreamed of facing. If he meets it, let no one get away with pretending he didn't.