The Elevator Music Of Politics

Andrew Ferguson is not particularly impressed by Barack Obama’s rhetoric, which he doesn’t think is particularly original.

You begin to wonder, listening to Obama’s rhetoric, whether anything has changed in 20 years. “This is a defining moment in our history,” Obama likes to say; but that’s what Elizabeth Dole said when her husband ran for president in 1996. (They’re both wrong.) In 1992, Bill Clinton was complaining that “Washington” was a place “people came to just to score political points.” Eight years later Bush was complaining that “Washington is obsessed with scoring political points, not solving problems.” Now, in 2008, “Washington has become a place,” Obama says, “where politicians spend too much time trying to score political points.”

What’s to be done about all this Washington point-scoring? Bob Dole’s solution, 12 years ago, was to strongly favor “the things that lift this country up instead of dragging it down”; today Obama opposes “the politics where we tear each other down instead of lifting this country up.” Because Howard Dean failed in his promise in 2004—“we’re going to take this country back”—Obama revives the pledge, word for word, today. But like Gerald Ford, running against Jimmy Carter in 1976, he believes “we can disagree without being disagreeable.”

Onward they plod, these old warhorse phrases, until Obama climbs to the climax of his stump speech. Head bowed, brow furrowed, eyes flashing, he announces that we “will choose unity over division [Jesse Jackson, 1992]. We will choose hope over fear [Bill Clinton and John Kerry, 2004]. And we will choose the future over the past [Al Gore, 1992].” In so doing, we will overcome our “moral deficit [Bush, 2000; Gore, 2000; Newt Gingrich,1994]” by “bringing people beyond the divisions of race and class [Clinton 1992]” because the “story of our country [Ross Perot, 1992]” or the “genius of our country [Bush 2000]” or the “wonder of our country [George H.W. Bush, 1988]” is, as Obama says in 2008, “ordinary people doing extraordinary things [Perot, Bush, Bush, and Ronald Reagan, 1984].”

Talk like this is the elevator music of politics, soothing and inoffensive and unavoidable.

Well, few politicians come up with original rhetoric, and talk like this is inevitable given the limited range of sentiments that a politician can tap into. Should Obama be held to higher standards? I say yes, because those higher standards are an implicit promise of his campaign. The premise that he is different from the typical Washington politician lies at the heart of Obama’s appeal, and his oratory is a key part of that. If his policy proposals are template American leftism, and his rhetoric is borrowed, then where’s the “change we can believe in?”