The 2008 Democratic National Convention starts today in Denver, and whether you’re just trying to make up your mind about the candidates or you’re an experienced observer of politics, here are six things that will help you make sense of the convention.
Like most party conventions, this one is going to be mostly dull. Unless you’re a serious political junkie or you’ve got an invitation to a shindig with an open bar, you’d probably have more fun watching the queasy expressions on people exiting the Tilt-a-Whirl at the county fair.
But while the selection of Illinois Sen. Barack Obama as the Democratic Party’s candidate for president is a given, there is some interesting stuff happening at the convention, with important implications for the next few weeks of the campaigns and Americans’ choice for their next president. Don’t consider this a comprehensive list of what we’ll see at the convention, but rather a brief rundown of a handful of highlights.
- Damning with faint praise: At the end of the convention, it’s likely that one of the things we’re likely to hear and read about is some kind of snub of Obama, real or perceived, from one or both of the Clintons. They may not do it on purpose – and certainly they’ll try not to make it look deliberate – but at some point either former President Bill Clinton or former Barack Obama rival U.S. Sen. Hillary Clinton is going to say something that will come off as inadequately enthusiastic about Obama and too self-serving. The former president already is reported to be chafing at the Obama campaign’s efforts to steer his convention speech toward foreign policy and away from a belated defense of his own time in office. There appears to be enough tension remaining between Sen. Clinton and Obama to fuel a week of punditry about whatever oratory blunders she or her husband might commit — but beyond that, it’s clear that the independent expenditure committees that favor Republican candidate Sen. John McCain will jump on any opportunity to get die-hard Hillary supporters to either stay home or choose anyone other than Obama.
- The vision thing: Barack Obama has been very good at inspirational speeches, and in spite of Republican candidate Sen. John McCain’s very real bona fides as an independent-minded maverick, the public probably perceives Obama more as the “change” candidate. But a change to what? Some of Obama’s policy positions are clear and others are not, and some of those positions are familiar to voters while others are not. But what Obama needs to do now is to articulate what kind of change he has in mind, and give voters an idea of what policies he will employ to create that change. He needs to present the country with an understandable picture of America under an Obama presidency. If Obama can’t accelerate out of the convention with a clear, unified vision of how he wants to change the country, his whole campaign will amount to a lot of pretty talk.
- He’s just this guy, you know?: One of the most recognizable missions of this convention is to define Barack Obama as a person, in a way that the candidate hasn’t spent a lot of time doing until now. Modern American political party conventions often are largely an exercise in hagiography, but look for this convention to take the trend to a new level. Michelle Obama’s talk tonight is the start, but with so many people not sure still of who Obama is, this convention has to go way beyond simply presenting a film along the lines of Bill Clinton’s “Man from Hope” biopic. Maybe just as important is the need to address Obama’s wife, Michelle. Is it a legitimate subject to be so concerned with a candidate’s wife? Certainly. There are some marriages in which one person doesn’t talk business with the other, but one need only look to history (Justinian and Theodora, anyone?) to recognize that inasmuch as most good marriages are close partnerships in every matter, it is important to know the person to whom a leader confides most openly A family angle is the likely way to get voters to identify with Obama, as the candidate’s life story *is* weird to many Americans.
- Introducing John McBush: Attacks on John McCain are likely to be sharper and more direct this week than they’ve been up to now – and those attacks probably will come from everyone but Obama. Just as the Democrats need to define Obama, they need to define McCain. Dems have learned from failed candidate John Kerry’s reluctance to attack George W. Bush at the national convention four years ago, so look for them to ratchet up their efforts to link McCain with the extremely unpopular current president and his policies.
- Can’t we all just get along?: In spite of my first point about the likelihood of the Clintons being perceived as not quite fully embracing Obama, I think Hillary Clinton will take great pains to make it look like she is really gung-ho for him. Yes, Clinton is enough of a “good Democrat” to know that it’s her duty to smile and be gracious in defeat. But mending fences with Obama and putting her best effort into helping him defeat McCain is in her interest, too. She plans on running for president again, and the last thing she wants is to be seen as a Ralph Nader-esque spoiler, particularly if McCain wins.
- Just a regular Joe: It will be fascinating to see precisely how the Obama-Biden campaign will present Delaware Sen. Joseph Biden as both a blue-collar regular guy and an expert on foreign policy, but that’s where potential vice-president Biden fits into the Obama ticket. My guess is that Biden will ease back on talking about foreign policy, at least far enough to put Obama in the fore instead of himself, and take the hardhat angle at the convention and beyond.
PARTING SHOTS: One of my favorite comments from the McCain campaign about Obama’s choice of Joe Biden as his running mate came this morning on Fox, later mostly repeated on MSNBC. The commentator said that in choosing Biden, with his reputation for gravitas and experience in foreign policy, Obama was hanging “a neon sign over his head” advertising that Obama wasn’t ready to be president. The last thing the American people want, she said, is to elect one person as president but have the vice president calling the shots. Yes, that would be awful. And unprecedented. Cough, cough (Cheney), cough!