Derek Chollet is a senior fellow at the Center for a New American Security and coauthor of America Between the Wars: From 11/9 to 9/11.
On an evening filled with more hoopla than the past few conventions combined, the speeches and imagery harkened back to the 1950s and early 1960s tradition of tough liberalism. For many years, foreign affairs has been an afterthought of Democratic conventions and Thursday night acceptance addresses. In 1992, then-New York Times columnist Les Gelb excoriated Bill Clinton for dedicating only 141 words (out of over 4,000) of his acceptance speech to international concerns. This illustrated a problem that plagued Clinton and Democrats generally for the rest of that campaign, throughout the 1990s, and during the first half of the Bush presidency--that foreign policy really wasn't their thing, and that politically speaking, national security could only get liberals in trouble.
I think the Denver convention, capped by Obama's speech, will be a big step in putting this to rest. It's true that the 2004 convention drew plenty of attention on foreign affairs, but that was really about trumpeting John Kerry's service in Vietnam--and that effort has gone down in history as the set-up for the Swiftboat sucker punch. And while Obama's address was hardly dominated by national security issues--the subject took up about 680 words out of a 4,600 word speech--he offered a full-throated call for American global engagement, and a staunch defense of patriotism. "So I've got news for you, John McCain," Obama said straight into the camera. "We all put our country first." This was not McGovern, MoveOn rhetoric, and it wasn't the me-too hawkishness we've seen from some Democrats since 9/11. Obama also outlined the core of the critique against his opponent: that despite McCain's years of experience, his judgment (on Iraq and Afghanistan, for example) and his temperament ("bomb Iran") should be questioned.
But beyond Obama's words, the entire convention was an impressive display of Democratic confidence on national security. Obviously the pick of Joe Biden was very important (especially in contrast with Sarah Palin), but many of the speeches--such as Bill Clinton's and the surprisingly good speech by John Kerry--showed a degree of toughness that has been missing since the early 1970s. Also, some of the smaller, less-noticed touches--such as the salute to Generals last night, Congressman Patrick Murphy's speech, the moving Spielberg video honoring veterans on Wednesday--revealed a level of comfort with these issues that Democrats too often lack.
It seems odd to say in an election that's about change, but what we saw in Denver was Democrats going back to the future, embracing their past of tough liberalism that seeks to protect the vulnerable at home and abroad. As Obama said last night, "We are the party of Roosevelt. We are the party of Kennedy. So don't tell me that Democrats won't defend this country. Don't tell me that Democrats won't keep us safe." Well said.