To Dream a Little Dream of Us

This contest is not about who is the best orator; it is more about who is the best dream merchant.

By Ellis Cose

From the magazine issue dated Sep 8, 2008

It will not be Ronald Reagan’s “Morning again in America.” the times are too dicey for that. But the Republican National Convention this week, no less than the Democratic one that just ended, will be a showcase for dreams—and arguments about how to make them real.

The Republicans will do their best to match the Democrats’ soaring rhetoric. Though, on that front, they will be challenged. It’s hard to imagine Cindy McCain evoking the fervor of Michelle Obama, or Tim Pawlenty and Arnold Schwarzenegger generating the drama and heat of back-to-back Clintons. And as compelling as John McCain’s own life story is, he will be hard-pressed to top the oratory of Barack Obama—whose acceptance speech was all the more poignant for coming on the 45th anniversary of Martin Luther King Jr.’s legendary discourse on a dream whose fulfillment some see in Obama himself.

But this contest is not about who is the best orator; it is more about who is the best dream merchant. Make no mistake: both candidates, and both parties, have dreams to sell. Or, more accurately, they have different versions of the same dream— the American Dream. In the end, the election is likely to go to the candidate who best argues his dream is the more authentic—and his approach the most American.

Both candidates claim they are children of the Dream. Both are eloquent in offering up their versions of what it did for them, and of what it can do for other Americans. McCain’s Republican version emphasizes toughness, individuality and loyalty—to country, to friends—that trumps virtually anything else. The Republican convention, themed “Country First,” will wrap that vision in an American flag. It will roll out the narrative of an authentic war hero fighting a battle to lead an America that, while enduring some hard times, is basically sound. It will also be a celebration of the doggedness and ingenuity of the American people—people who, in McCain’s opinion, are smart enough to know that a young man with a silver tongue but meager experience cannot lead them into a brilliant morning.

Obama’s Democratic version of the Dream focuses less on celebrating individual success and more on protecting the vulnerable. But Obama also believes something that McCain does not: that the Dream itself is endangered. Obama’s running mate, Joe Biden, said the dream “feels as if it’s slowly slipping away.” Many Obama supporters share his concern and think that dramatic measures are required. As Bernard Anderson (an assistant secretary of Labor in the Clinton administration and an Obama delegate) put it, “The fundamental process of upward mobility has broken down.”

Within seconds of Obama’s speech in Denver, the McCain camp blasted out what it deemed to be a corrective of the misleading claims Obama had made. Among them was Obama’s statement that McCain didn’t believe American families were hurting—that in McCain’s view, the country had made “great progress economically.”

In the longer version of that interview, McCain dutifully noted that the nation’s great economic progress was of “no comfort to families now that are facing these tremendous economic challenges.” Only after that caveat did he add: “the fundamentals of America’s economy are strong. We’re the greatest exporter, the greatest importer, the greatest innovator, the greatest producer, still the greatest economic engine in the world.” He also acknowledged that times were tough and that families in small Pennsylvania towns were aware of that. To McCain, he was not out of touch, as Obama said, but very much in sync with the feelings of the public. The larger point was that the Dream was strong and that his policies would make it even stronger.

Like all campaigns, this one will be not just about competing dreams and proposals. It will be about character, maturity and leadership, and how those things are measured; about ground operations in battleground states, and who has the strongest. It will feature all matter of attacks and counterattacks, and smears by surrogates careful to keep a certain distance from the candidate they favor. And it will induce endless debate about that which arguably should not matter at all—race, age, depth of religious beliefs and feelings about subjects ranging from bowling to gays.

But in an interesting way—and for all the noise in the background—this may be the purest election since 1980, when Reagan reduced the essence of it to a simple question: “Are you better off than you were four years ago?”

McCain and Obama have fundamentally different takes on how to keep the Dream alive for the millions who are hurting and fearful of the future. In Denver Obama made his best effort to date to explain why he is right. This week McCain has his chance. In the next two months, political operatives will blow a lot of smoke in voters’ eyes in an attempt to distract us from what is truly important. The way out of such confusion now, just as in 1980, is to do what Reagan did: make the contest about which candidate can best help Americans realize their defining dream. Then everyone votes accordingly.