In the time-honored tradition of the notebook dump, some thoughts and observations on the Democratic convention so far:
As for Bill Clinton’s speech, halfway through I thought: The Master has arrived. Crazy Bill, the red-faced Rageaholic, was somewhere else. This was Deft Political Pro Bill doing what no one had been able to do up to this point at the convention, and that is make the case for Barack Obama. He lambasted the foe, asserted Obama’s growth on the trail, argued that he was the right man for the job and did that as a man who once held that job and is remembered, at least in terms of domestic policy and at least by half the country, as having done it pretty darn well. He gave his full imprimatur to a crowd that believes he has an imprimatur to give. As Clinton spoke a friend IM’d, “What is this, the Clinton convention?” The fact is, until both Clintons spoke, it was. Now oddly enough it isn’t. Now eyes turn, and finally, to Obama. This was one of the great tee-ups.
The Hillary speech was the best of her career. Toward Obama she was exactly as gracious as she is capable of being. Mrs. Clinton’s speeches are rarely notable for great lines but this one had a number of them. “It makes sense that George Bush and John McCain will be together next week in the Twin Cities, because these days they’re awfully hard to tell apart.” KAPOW. We’ll be hearing more of that one. “Sisterhood of the travelling pantsuits”—funny and self aware. She normally doesn’t use the teleprompter—actually it’s rare for her to use one—but last night she did, and she proved herself the most gifted pol on the prompter in current political history. Her statement from the floor during the rollcall? Fabulous. The decision to put Obama over the top and ask for acclamation? Masterly. Mrs. Clinton’s actions this week have been pivotal not only for Obama, but for her. She showed herself capable of appearing to put party first. I also believe she has come to appreciate both emotionally and intellectually The Importance of Being Teddy. She will not be the president of the United States the next four years, but she can ease herself into the role of Teddy Kennedy-esque fighter for her issues in the Senate. And that I think is exactly where she means to go, and what she means to be. And that, for her, is a brilliant move. Really: brilliant. Here’s one reason: Teddy is, throughout his party, beloved. Beloved would be something very new for Hillary.
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The general thinking among thinking journalists, as opposed to journalists who merely follow the journalistic line of the day, is that the change of venue Thursday night to Invesco Field, and the huge, open air Obama acceptance speech is…one of the biggest and possibly craziest gambles of this or any other presidential campaign of the modern era. Everyone can define what can go wrong, and no one can quite define what “great move” would look like. It has every possibility of looking like a Nuremberg rally; it has too many variables to guarantee a good tv picture; the set, the Athenian columns, looks hokey; big crowds can get in the way of subtle oratory. My own added thought is that speeches are delicate; they’re words in the air, and when you’ve got a ceiling the words can sort of go up to that ceiling and come back down again. But words said into an open air stadium…can just get lost in echoes, and misheard phrases. People working the technical end of the event are talking about poor coordination, unclear planning, and a Democratic National Committee that just doesn’t seem capable of decisive and sophisticated thinking. So: this all does seem very much a gamble. At a Time magazine event Wednesday afternoon, Obama campaign manager David Plouffe suggested the power of the stadium event is in this: it’s meant to be a metaphor for the openness and inclusiveness that has marked the Obama campaign. Open stadium, 60,000 people—“we’re opening this up to average Americans.” We’ll see. In my experience when political professionals start talking metaphors there’s usually good reason to get nervous. (Questions: how many of the 60,000 will be Coloradans? Are a lot of the tickets going to out of staters? Are they paying for tickets? Is the Mile High event actually a fundraiser? What’s the top ticket going for?)
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More on Plouffe. Here are things he said. “It’s gonna be a close election. If anything breaks it will break late.” “There are 18 states we’re focusing on.” McCain has a woman problem because “if he’s elected, Roe versus Wade will be outlawed.” McCain’s campaign has an “intensity deficit.” “One thing we never run into out there is a John McCain field organization.” If McCain’s vice presidential nominee is Mitt Romney, “They’re doubling down on out-of-touch.” Plouffe talked a lot about increasing the turnout of registered voters who did not vote in 2004. He spoke a lot about winning or losing various states on the margins. This elicited a rather piercing question from Mike Murphy. He said that in his experience as a political strategist, when the talk turns to things like winning states by upping the share of registered voters who missed the last election, that talk is usually indicative of a message deficit. Plouffe didn’t really have an answer.
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We all tend to see this campaign as the endless campaign. It started right after the ‘06 election, was in full gear in ‘07, has reached party resolutions the past few months, and now the general election is off and going. But Plouffe said something that reminded me the endless campaign is nearing its ending. A lot of people start voting in 40 days, with absentee ballots. Forty days! This thing really is going to end.
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Michelle Obama’s speech was solid, but not a home run. First impression: She is so beautiful. Beautifully dressed, beautifully groomed, confident, smiling, a compelling person. But her speech seemed to me more the speech of a candidate, and not a candidate’s spouse. It was full of problems and issues. I continue to be of the Denis Thatcher School of Political Spouses: Let the candidate do the seriousness of the issues, you do the excellence of the candidate. This is old fashioned but nonetheless I think still applicable. It has made Laura Bush (with a few forays into relatively anodyne policy questions) the most popular First Lady in modern American political history. Another problem with the Michelle speech. In order to paint both her professional life and her husband’s, and in order to communicate what she feels is his singular compassion, she had to paint an America that is darker, sadder, grimmer, than most Americans experience their country to be. And this of course is an incomplete picture, an incorrectly weighted picture. Sadness and struggle are part of life, but so are guts and verve and achievement and success and hardiness and…triumph. Democrats always get this wrong. Republicans get it wrong too, but in a different way.
Democrats in the end speak most of, and seem to hold the most sympathy for, the beset-upon single mother without medical coverage for her children, and the soldier back from the war who needs more help with post-traumatic stress disorder. They express the most sympathy for the needy, the yearning, the marginalized and unwell. For those, in short, who need more help from the government, meaning from the government’s treasury, meaning the money got from taxpayers.
Who happen, also, to be a generally beset-upon group.
Democrats show little expressed sympathy for those who work to make the money the government taxes to help the beset-upon mother and the soldier and the kids. They express little sympathy for the middle-aged woman who owns a small dry cleaner and employs six people and is, actually, day to day, stressed and depressed from the burden of state, local and federal taxes, and regulations, and lawsuits, and meetings with the accountant, and complaints as to insufficient or incorrect efforts to meet guidelines regarding various employee/employer rules and regulations. At Republican conventions they express sympathy for this woman, as they do for those who are entrepreneurial, who start businesses and create jobs and build things. Republicans have, that is, sympathy for taxpayers. But they don’t dwell all that much, or show much expressed sympathy for, the sick mother with the uninsured kids, and the soldier with the shot nerves.
Neither party ever gets it quite right, the balance between the taxed and the needy, the suffering of one sort and the suffering of another. You might say that in this both parties are equally cold and equally warm, only to two different classes of citizens.
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By the way, the best line of the convention so far? Ted Strickland of Ohio, when he echoed the 1988 Democratic convention joke about George H.W. Bush, that he was born on third and thought he hit a triple. Strickland said of George W. Bush that he was born on third and then stole second. It didn’t get much attention in any of the commentary, but it’s all people were talking about in the bars of Denver that night.
I’ll end with Ted Kennedy’s speech. It was a small masterpiece of generosity. Not only that he showed up, not only that he spoke, but that with every right to speak of himself and his career, with every right to speak about his family and his memories and the lessons he’s learned and the great things he’s seen, with all the right to dwell on those things he produced: a speech about Barack Obama. Telling America to vote for him. How classy was that? Very.