ENPR: Special Democratic Convention Recap

EDITOR’S NOTE: Next week as we cover the  Republican convention in St. Paul, we will have a different publishing schedule, sending you ENPR twice: on Monday and Friday.

Here’s your recap of the Democratic convention, including an analysis of Obama’s running mate Joe Biden.  Expect a GOP preview on Monday, September 1, with more on McCain‘s running mate Alaska Gov. Sarah Palin and a recap on Friday, 9/5. After that, we’ll return to normal.



Following the Democrats’ superb convention, Sen. John McCain gave his candidacy a needed shot in the arm with his selection of Alaska Gov. Sarah Palin as his running mate.

Palin is a pro-life, conservative reformer. But just as important, she is a woman and young. The conservative base is revitalized, and the race is wide open.

Democratic Convention

Overview: A spectacular convention, expertly scripted, and masterfully carried out by a squad of talented politicians buoys Democratic spirits, unites the party, and should catapult Obama to a larger lead in the polls.

  1. The convention’s final day, before an estimated crowd of 75,000 at Mile High Stadium, took to a new level the made-for-television spectacle that conventions have become, while also continuing the Democratic message since 2004 of openness and populism.
  2. Obama came across well, and the convention, as an introduction to the candidate, was excellent.
  3. McCain was not the target of Democratic attacks as much as Bush was. Many speakers spent minutes railing against Bush’s failures, and ended the tirade by stating McCain is more of the same. Democrats (and Bush’s performance) turned "four more years" into a curse.
  4. In praising Obama, speakers were careful to avoid specifics. This reflects two things: first Democrats may have learned from John Kerry‘s misstep four years ago, in which the convention speakers focused so heavily on Kerry’s Vietnam War record. Pinning his campaign on this, Kerry left himself open to attack-an attack that fatally distracted him in a campaign he could have won.
  5. Second, Obama’s vagueness is a deliberate strategy. Striving to be a blank slate on which all sorts of voters can cast their hopes. "Leadership," "open-mindedness," "change," "hope," and "Yes We Can," were the virtues touted. His own life and record were mentioned, but not much in prime time.
  6. Democrats leave Denver revved up and unified-a level of enthusiasm and support among the base that exceeds any nominee for either party since Reagan.

Obama: On a stage built to evoke the Rose Garden, Obama delivered a good speech before his biggest audience yet. If this is the first impression for some independent voters, it’s a good one.

  1. Obama was a bit lighter on the preacher-in-the-pulpit stuff and the soaring rhetoric than he has been in the past. It was a slightly watered-down version of Obama, appropriate for an independent TV audience, but possibly falling short of the expectations for this highly touted orator’s speech of a lifetime.
  2. Obama also was far softer in his attacks than were the 200 proxies who spoke before him. Refraining from directly accusing McCain of doing the bidding of oil companies or kowtowing to the Religious Right, Obama was able to call for a "new politics" with some plausible credibility. For anyone watching much of the convention, that plea for civility is not credible.
  3. Providing a list of "specifics" regarding his policy plans was an effective move: giving the impression of seriousness on policy, while avoiding actual specifics, which would have dragged on too long and diminished his moderate image. The policy lineup in the second-half of his speech was eloquently written, with a hint of conservatism on cutting taxes and cutting waste.
  4. Obama’s attacks on McCain were different in focus than most other speakers. He hit McCain’s "temperament," specifically as regards to foreign policy, and his being out of touch-"John McCain doesn’t get it"-with reference to Phil Gramm‘s "nation of whiners" comment (but without specific reference to his seven houses). These seem like effective lines of attack.
  5. The entire day leading up to Obama’s speech was different in tone than the previous days. Targeted less towards Democrats, it was a flag-waving, presidential-looking, average-American touting, cross-party-reaching day. The biographical video preceding his speech sent the message that Obama is really your standard corn-fed kid from Kansas who has a funny name.

Biden: Joe Biden gave a good performance, executing what was needed: reintroducing himself to the country and attacking McCain.

  1. As a regular white guy, Joe was excellent. His use of his mother, his demeanor, and his storytelling tone all endeared him to the audience. On the score of personality and charisma, this is a ticket that is awesome.
  2. As an attack-dog, he was also very good-focusing more precisely on McCain (as opposed to Bush) than previous speakers. He hit McCain on all the standard issues, but also on broader grounds. He most clearly articulated the theme of the convention: McCain is "more of the same," while Obama is "the change we need."

Clintons: Worries that the Clintons would steal the show were proven half right, and half wrong. They were super stars, but in a way that helped Obama.

  1. Hillary spoke as well and as powerfully as could be expected, but in her graciousness and support of Obama, she exceeded expectations.
  2. She led with her support of Obama, and she hammered it hard. She stated her call for unity as clearly as possible: "Whether you voted for me, or voted for Barack, the time is now to unite as a single party with a single purpose. We are on the same team, and none of us can sit on the sidelines."
  3. On a rhetorical score, it was the best speech of the first three nights, unmatched until Obama’s speech, and perhaps better than that.
  4. Delegates gave an almost overwhelmingly positive response to Clinton. Clinton delegates (with some exceptions) were thrilled that their woman got her say and that she hit a home run. Obama delegates were appreciative of her unmitigated praise and support for Obama.
  5. Much of the ill will she earned among liberals and Obama supporters throughout the primaries could be wiped out by this speech. Her future chances for President look much brighter now than they did three months ago. Just as Obama rode his 2004 convention speech to the nomination four years later, if Obama loses this fall, Hillary could again be the front-runner for the 2012 nomination.
  6. Just as we wrote from Boston four years ago, Bill Clinton is the rock star of the Democratic Party-on a level that rivals Obama. The crowd of delegates-more liberal than most Democrats-greeted President Clinton (who governed as a moderate) with a hero’s welcome, by far the loudest reaction any speaker in the Pepsi Center received. Thanks in part to his wife’s speech the night before, all the bitterness from his race-baiting dirty-pool in the primaries was forgotten. The crowd’s lengthy standing ovation to Bill Clinton’s entrance is the clearest sign that this party is unified.
  7. Clinton was not as effusive about Obama as his wife was, and he spoke quite a bit about himself-but he did his job. Clinton’s job was to contrast the prosperity of the 1990s to the struggles of the current decade. Expecting this message can reach beyond partisan Democrats, and appeal to blue-collar voters in Pennsylvania, Ohio, and Michigan, Clinton made listeners yearn for Democratic rule again. And-oh yeah-Barack Obama would be good, too.
  8. The Clintons’ excellent performances both unify the party behind Obama and revive Hillary Clinton’s national chances. Any bump Obama gets from this convention is owed half to Bill and Hillary.

Winners and Losers: While an entirely scripted event, some players outperformed expectations and others underperformed.

  1. Former Gov. Mark Warner (Va.) was perhaps the biggest dud of the convention. He was queued up as the Barack Obama of 2004: the shoo-in Senate candidate with cross-party appeal, taking over a GOP-held seat, with national potential. The resemblance did not extend to the podium.
  2. Warner’s delivery was uninspired and uninspiring, and his theme was an odd one: beating China in the global economy-not exactly a prime focus of this election, not exactly an area where the former governor has claim to expertise, and not exactly an issue that gets Democrats riled up. Warner will be in the Senate in January, but, unlike Obama four years ago, his convention speaking spot did nothing to elevate him above other freshmen senators.
  3. Kansas Gov. Kathleen Sebelius was one of the speakers assigned to directly attack McCain (as opposed to Bush, as most of the speakers did), but she bored the crowd. The arena chatter was never louder than during Sebelius’s dull, monotone attack on McCain. We overheard a few delegates during her talk thank God that she was not the running mate.
  4. Tammy Duckworth, former congressional candidate and potential appointive senator if Obama resigns his seat, did not impress.
  5. Sen. John Kerry (Mass.) issued perhaps the strongest attack on McCain of the whole convention. For Democrats, who praised McCain as the maverick moderate for Bush’s first six years, drawing a distinction between "Senator McCain and candidate McCain," is crucial-and it is a crucial story line to sell to the media. Nobody has done this as well as Kerry did on Wednesday night.
  6. Montana Gov. Brian Schweitzer, not well known to a national audience, came across to the prime-time audience as eminently likable and witty in his barbs against Bush and McCain. One Democrat described him as "our side’s Huckabee."
  7. Liberal Rep. Dennis Kucinich (Ohio) brought the crowd to its feet with a rousing passionate sermon on the evils of corporate America, capitalism, and the Republican Party.

Issues: It’s the economy, stupid.

  1. Delegates and speakers alike made it clear that the economy is the top issue by far, relegating Iraq to second place and social issues to the back alley.
  2. Current economic woes-rising prices, foreclosure, stagnant wages-were a regular litany from the podium, always with Bush bearing the blame, and always with the charge that McCain would continue Bush’s policies.
  3. McCain’s image as out-of-touch and clueless was a priceless asset for Democrats. His inability to keep track of his houses was a constant punch line-always earning rowdy cheers-and all of the top speakers assailed McCain’s comments that the economy is fundamentally sound.
  4. Class warfare was a theme, though less present than it was four years ago. Tirades against Big Oil, big business, and lobbyists-and the Republicans they control-were the most popular speech theme among delegates.
  5. The environment was mentioned repeatedly, but not as much as energy, gas prices, and employment.
  6. War and foreign policy were the No. 2 theme. Democrats successfully avoided sounding like peaceniks while firmly attacking the Iraq war. On war, Democrats put great emphasis on the treatment of veterans.
  7. Obama focused more effectively on Afghanistan and targeting al Qaeda than Kerry did four years ago.
  8. Abortion was mostly avoided, while homosexual marriage and other gay rights issues received scattered mention. When speakers did mention these issues, it usually met with hearty applause.
  9. Over the first two days and approximately 100 speakers, the word abortion was uttered by only two speakers. Even Cecile Richards, president of Planned Parenthood, made only one passing reference to "a woman’s right to choose."
  10. The party’s quietness on abortion reflects Obama’s stance that it is a "distraction" from the real issues, and speaking about it is divisive. It also reflects an understanding that Democratic 2006 gains among "Reagan Democrats" in Pennsylvania, Indiana, and Ohio, as well as the South relied largely on running pro-life candidates.
  11. Two pro-life speakers did take the stage. West Virginia Gov. Joe Manchin avoided abortion entirely, while Sen. Bob Casey (Pa.), whose father was blocked from speaking 16 years ago, made only passing reference to abortion-specifically, Obama’s magnanimity in letting a pro-lifer speak.
  12. A surprising issue to make many appearances in prime time was "equal pay for equal work," mentioned by the nominee, his wife, Hillary Clinton, and Joe Biden.

Alaska Primaries

Alaska Senate: Indicted Sen. Ted Stevens (Alaska) will run for re-election while on trial, it appears, following his 2-to-1 win over former State Rep. Dave Cuddy (R) and a handful of other challengers.

Polls show Stevens trailing badly in the general election against Anchorage Mayor Mark Begich (D), but Stevens is a fighter-he could win. Alternatively, he could drop out of the race, and anoint his replacement on the ballot.

Alaska-At Large: Rep. Don Young (R) finished 151 votes ahead of Lt. Gov. Sean Parnell (R) in Tuesday’s primary. Young, like Stevens, faces corruption troubles, but unlike Stevens, he has not been indicted. A few thousand absentee votes remain to be counted, giving Parnell a legitimate chance of winning.