Obama vs. McCain as change agents

The conventions still left questions about the candidates' ability to change Washington.

After two weeks of back-to-back political conventions, the country knows this much: Change trumped experience as the mantra of both campaigns. Experience marched up the hill as a theme, but didn't capture the flag. And yet, as professed standard-bearers of change, the candidates still lack a certain amount of credibility.

Let's start with Democrat Barack Obama. While his election would mark a historic change as the first black American in the White House, his 2008 convention speech didn't measure up, especially against his 2004 debut as that convention's keynote speaker.

Four years ago, the fresh face from Illinois rejected the politics of division and the peddlers of negative ads. "Tonight," he said back then, "there is not a liberal America and a conservative America: There is the United States of America."

But Mr. Obama's unconventionality turned conventional under the warm sky and even warmer reception of the party faithful in Denver.

He front-loaded his speech with partisan red meat (most Americans are unhappy with the country's direction; tell them something they don't know). He stooped to mischaracterize his opponent (John McCain's definition of the middle class as people earning less than $5 million had been made in jest; the bit about Mr. McCain not going to the cave of Osama bin Laden was a cheap shot.)

And Obama laid out a fairly standard Democratic policy agenda – though he encouragingly detoured to middle ground on such culture-cleaving issues as abortion and guns.

In St. Paul, Minn., on the other hand, McCain flew solo by delivering a speech notable for its relative lack of attack on his opponent, for its admission of party mistakes and promise of reform, and for McCain's stated intention to reach across the aisle. His track record backs him up on the latter point.

But what does McCain mean by change? Sensation Sarah Palin broke the gender barrier in a big way, but her staunchly social conservative credentials make her most appealing to GOP voters.

Will McCain's reforms go broader than the narrow fight against pork-barrel spending? His recited policy fare, like Obama's, differed little from the party menu. And McCain's above-the-fray tone contrasted sharply with the piercing party machinery that whirred over the previous days, including Ms. Palin's unnecessarily sarcastic searing of Obama. It also contrasted with his campaign to date, which has relied heavily on negative ads. Boring in on Obama's celebrity status was just silly.

Neither candidate is your average politician. One senses their sincerity in wanting to do things differently in Washington. Perhaps the question is whether they can resist forces and traditions within their parties that would prevent them from rising above partisanship.

Political conventions by nature draw the hard core, and seem unlikely launching pads for anything unconventional beyond stagecraft. But nearly 39 million viewers saw these speeches – among them, independents with no taste for red meat or the daily party special.

As the candidates enter the final phase, they will have to do a more convincing job that they're not just talkers, but doers, of change.

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