A Mile High in Denver
by David Michael Green
So. The Very Reverend James Dobson emailed his flock and asked them to pray for rain in Denver Thursday night. Lots and lots of it.
Okay, fine. Let’s play by those rules then, Jimmy.
If ever there was a metaphor for the 2008 presidential contest, surely this was it.
I don’t even know how to begin when it comes to people so messed up that they would do such a thing, and then think it might actually work. But I do know this: I was in Denver for two weeks prior to that night. The first few days I was there it rained. Then, it was hot – uncomfortably so, actually, in that mile-high convection oven sort of way. And then, the day of the speech in the open-air Invesco Stadium, the weather was absolutely gorgeous. Like, I mean, drop-dead. One of those makes-you-glad-to-be-alive, beautiful, perfect days.
Meanwhile, Republicans are now considering whether to postpone their convention because a freakin’ hurricane (as well as a hurricane of a reminder of the last time this happened) is bearing down on a bunch of very red states in the South, including those headed by GOP wunderkind Bobby Jindal and skanky machine-insider, Haley Barbour.
As I see it, there are only a limited number of explanations for all this: 1) There is no god. 2) There is, but she’s doesn’t do windows, and she doesn’t take custom weather requests either. Or, 3) She’s as sick of the GOP this year as are the rest of us.
Normally, I’d vote for option one, above. But so juicy are the ironies, so clear the message on the very terms set forth by those who prayed for a mighty Republican rain, I’m thinking maybe it’s option three after all. Maybe there is a god, and she’s finally had enough of regressives sullying her name with stupid wars, botched policies and environmental destruction. When a massive hurricane bringing destruction and reminding voters of Katrina starts bearing down on the core headquarters of the Confedera…, oops, I mean GOP, precisely in the middle of their quadrennial convention, then you get the feeling that the Old Lady In Charge has decided that subtlety doesn’t work much on these dense Americans.
Whichever explanation is correct, though, it doesn’t bode well for Dobson. Or John McCain. And what doesn’t bode well for them is very good for the rest of us.
Barack Obama put on a flawless show in Denver this week. That’s not as easy as it might seem, for a lot of reasons. As I saw it, he had six key challenges surrounding this convention, and could not really afford to fumble on any of them, let alone several. He didn’t.
This question of fumbling brings us right away to the first challenge. People were watching this convention and looking, even subconsciously, to see if this guy could run a major production. After all, if your convention is chaos, how are you going to effectively run a sprawling federal government? (For that matter, all of Obama’s campaign over the last eighteen months is also a barometer of his organizational and management skills.) And, of course, Democrats are famous for conventions that display disharmony and complete disregard for that foreign and obscure concept of persuading voters. From George McGovern’s absolutely unprime-time 3:00 am acceptance speech to Teddy Kennedy’s very public avoidance of Jimmy Carter on the big stage, to Bill Clinton’s aversion to clocks of any sort, opportunity after opportunity has been wasted. Unless, of course, one is counting the opportunity to alienate potential Democratic voters.
Nothing of the sort happened here. As far as I could see, the convention ran almost flawlessly, even given the massive logistical challenge of moving the final day to Invesco on relatively short notice. Speakers began and ended on schedule. The campaign’s evident themes were articulated over and over. Logistics came off as they were supposed to. All of which organizational competence, by the way, has now long been evident in this race. It’s fair to say, I think, that the two main reasons that Obama was accepting the nomination this week in place of the supposed shoe-in Hillary Clinton were, first, their respective positions on the war, and second, that he ran a crack campaign operation, while hers was bloated, indecisive, acrimonious, arrogant and hubristic. At the risk of even hinting at a comparison to Mussolini, it is nevertheless the case that people appreciate a certain amount of order in their societies, and we’d be fools to pretend otherwise. For more than a year now, and especially last week, Obama has made the trains run on time.
Hillary was clearly another major challenge, and here he got at least a bit lucky. I never thought I’d use the terms ‘grace’ and ‘Clinton’ in the same sentence, but I’d have to say that both Bill and Hill really delivered for their party’s nominee this week. They might well not have, just as a petulant Teddy didn’t for Jimmy in 1980, arguably costing an incumbent president from Kennedy’s own party reelection. The Clintons had a lot of good reasons of their own to be on their good behavior. There’s probably no future scenario in which undercutting Obama today would help her later. And, maybe, the Obama camp showed grace and wisdom and compassion of their own in private negotiations with the Clintons, such that the outcome was as much due to skill as luck. I don’t know what happened in their smokeless room discussions. But the bottom line is this: in a tight race like we’re now in, a fractured party could have seriously hurt Obama’s prospects for November. Moreover, the press was ravenous for any scrap of fact, real or imagined, around which to explode this theme all over TVs, monitors and front pages. The fact that it never happened – indeed, I thought the Democratic Party’s (former) First Family’s endorsement was full-throated – was one of the successes of this convention.
Obama’s third challenge was to pick a running mate who would help his prospects, and certainly one who would do no harm. While Joe Biden is not the most progressive guy around (nor is Obama), it’s really hard to imagine a much better pick in terms of dislodging the Godawfully Obnoxious Party, as well as in helping a President Obama govern effectively. I think the choice telegraphed maturity and self-confidence on the part of a younger and less experienced Barack Obama. I had sort of been hoping for a Wesley Clark or Jim Webb figure, who would have the resume to savage McCain on his insane foreign policy ‘credentials’, and undercut the essential argument for him to be president. But, otherwise, I don’t know who might have been a better choice. What pleases me most about Biden is his reputation as a street-fighter. Democrats badly need to put on their game faces if they ever hope to regain the White House, and that includes Mr. Biden’s running mate. I thought Biden could have been tougher in his convention speech, but he did pretty well. He needs to start taking the gloves off fast, though.
Toughness is important for a lot of reasons, and it represents the fourth box that Obama needed to check off this week. It’s important, as just mentioned, because Republicans have made it clear since at least the era of Tailgunner Joe McCarthy – and on through Reagan at Philadelphia, Mississippi, Willie Horton, politicized national defense, gay marriage, immigration and now attacks on Obama’s patriotism – that they’re capable of anything that is necessary to win, and everything that a Dukakis or a Kerry would allow them to get away with. Indeed, it is quite arguable the Republicans would rarely ever win the White House in our era without resorting to these tactics. This is why it was so crucial to their electoral aspirations that Vietnam vets Al Gore and John Kerry be emasculated as wimps by cowardly war-avoiders George Bush and Dick Cheney.
But the toughness thing is also important for another reason. Voters legitimately desire somebody at the helm who can show fortitude when necessary. It’s true that America makes a very high proportion of its own problems (not to mention those of millions of other people) with foreign policies that are often selfish, stupid, arrogant, hypocritical and breathtakingly wicked – not to mention frequently all of the above at once. But it’s also true that there are some really ugly actors and forces out there that need to be countered. And even if it wasn’t, voters certainly believe it to be the case and act accordingly. Anybody who can’t throw a few punches against the other party’s nominee in a presidential race is unlikely to be trusted to deal with Vladimir Putin or Kim Jong-il. Obama did a stellar job at his convention – with lots of help from many folks, especially a fired-up John Kerry – in demonstrating that, finally, this is one Democrat who won’t be rolled. His speech was feistier than I expected, and that’s a good thing. Such toughness won’t win him the election. But its absence would surely cost him the race. Just ask Kerry or Gore or Dukakis or Mondale or Carter or McGovern or…
A related task for Obama was the matter of inoculation against future attacks by the McCain forces, and of the six major goals he had, it was only here where he fell a bit short, I thought. Obama, or certainly his surrogates – especially Biden – or better yet all of the above, need to defang what will obviously be McCain’s strongest and cheapest line of attack this fall. They need to attack McCain’s attack on them as unworthy, unpatriotic and disgusting, and they need to hog-tie McCain to the Rove disciples who are in fact running his campaign. It is enormously crucial to do these things right now. The pump must be primed today with the notion that McCain, his staff, and Republicans generally run cheap, repulsive and unpatriotic campaigns, so that tomorrow, if (or, I should say, when) he actually pulls these out again, the correct frame for interpreting them will have already been lodged in the public mind. Obama did some of this work, and Kerry – sounding remarkably like a guy unloading four years worth of bitterness and frustration (wonder why?) – did a lot of it. It wasn’t enough, though. The only way to enervate this stuff is through inoculation. If you wait until the disease hits, it’s too late.
Lastly, one of Obama’s key missions this week was to introduce himself and his party to the great mass of voters not yet paying attention to the election. This was especially critical for this candidate, in this election. This cycle, the White House is basically the Democrats’ to lose. So discredited is the GOP brand that basically any fool with a ‘D’ after his name should be able to win. Obama is anything but a fool, but he is different, and he is, um, black (maybe you’ve noticed). He also comes from the Democratic Party, which has over the course of a generation been successfully branded as wimpy, and he’s running against a guy who is (yet again) playing the national security fear card for all it is worth. Never mind that we’re talking about the party of FDR (World War II), Truman (World War II, Korea, Cold War), Kennedy (Cuban Missile Crisis, Vietnam) and Johnson (Vietnam). Somehow, Democrats are supposedly weak on security. I guess that’s because some of them dare to oppose wars based on lies. Can’t have that, now can we?
I thought Obama did a fine job Thursday night of showing himself to be serious, thoughtful, dependable, forward-thinking and solidly mainstream. In Regressive World, believing in national healthcare, or that Iraq was a blunder, makes you a looney-left socialist surrender-monkey. Fortunately, Americans have now had an ample taste of Regressive World, and most of them no longer subscribe to such insane ideas. They want healthcare, an end to the war, maintenance of Social Security, responsible environmental stewardship and a balanced budget. Go figguh, eh? What a wacky little country we are.
Anyhow, just like the last one, this election will turn on the mass of voters who really, really don’t want to vote Republican if they can be given any plausible assurance that the Democrat can be trusted as an alternative. This is precisely why the Bush people had to devastate Kerry as a wimpy, French-speaking flip-flopper who just couldn’t handle national security responsibilities. You know, the kind of guy who would let the Huns march right in. Similarly, Obama had to show these same voters that he is solid and centrist, and I think he hit that mark pretty well in Denver.
It’s certainly a measure of Obama’s successes to date that McCain is showing increasing desperation as he scrambles to have a prayer at winning the White House. Like Bush the coward running as the macho dress-up warrior, McCain’s “Country First” slogan has now become a sick joke due to the astonishing levels of black irony attendant to it. Hiring Karl Rove’s minions to further degrade our political sphere hardly qualifies as putting country first. Choosing a candidate who is more grossly unprepared for the White House than any in at least fifty years (when you’re a 72 year-old three-time cancer survivor, no less) is as complete an act of irresponsibility as can be imagined. Toward what end? Time and time again what McCain is actually doing is putting country last, well behind his personal career ambition to be president.
I don’t yet have a good sense of what kind of president Barack Obama would make. I’ve written before that he could be either a bold and transformative FDR figure, or a cautious and self-serving Bill Clinton-like centrist, and I still think that is the case. To some degree, no one knows, since events will make a presidency as much as the resident of 1600 Pennsylvania Avenue himself. I lean – barely – toward the former possibility as the more likely (and it sure won’t hurt to follow an act like George W. Bush). That is to say that I think he might well have the courage and smarts to govern at the progressive edge of the envelope of possibility. Which is not so bad, because a lot is now possible given the right person standing on the bully pulpit. If Obama’s presidency ended Iraq, ended Guantánamo and torture, brought national healthcare, got serious about the environment and energy, repaired the fabric of American political discourse and vanquished the GOP to the scrap heap where it belongs, I guess I’d be one pretty contented voter who felt like he got his money’s worth. I think all of this and more is quite possible over the next four or eight years.
In any case, one thing’s for sure: He’s a hell of a candidate, and he showed it again this week in Denver.
What’s that foreign feeling now coursing, however tentatively, through my veins? Dare I say it?
I think it’s called hope.
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