This commentary first appeared on AC360/CNN.COM on August 28, 2008
By Carl Bernstein
Barack Obama is getting the convention he wants, under extraordinarily difficult circumstances. The convention he is building reflects him and his priorities: it’s thoughtful, not just red-meat; and he’s in surprising control of the message, given the forces he’s dealing with. Indeed, the convention-building and the message may be far more sophisticated and effective than we instant commentators were prepared to discern. Witness the opening night grousing on-air about the convention’s supposed thematic absence, and aversion to instant butchery of the opposition.
Task Number One for Obama:
Defining himself as a person, not just a politician: telling his story and that of Michelle Obama and their family. An American story, meant to definitively undermine the oppo-narrative of the Clinton campaign, and now the Republican oppo-narrative – that he is some kind of vaguely alien, exotic candidate. (For some undecided voters, that also means uncomfortably black). Michelle Obama – as well as the team that produced her bio-pic – delivered with perfect pitch on Night One.
This was the real opening business of the convention, the essential themes to get right. As well as to establish an umbilical connection between Obama and the greatest of Democratic traditions and immutable principles… a generational passing of the torch that Caroline and Ted Kennedy declared unmistakably – and emotionally – had now moved past the Clintons.
It would be hard to underestimate how personally difficult the defection of the Kennedys has been for Hillary and Bill Clinton: consider how, as an adolescent, Bill idolized JFK, emulated him as a politician; that JFK Jr. was among the first contributors to Bill Clinton’s presidential campaign; and that Caroline’s mother, Jacqueline Kennedy, formed a close friendship with Hillary (in private, they shared a wicked sense of humor), and told friends that, of all her successors as First Lady, she was most fond of Hillary Clinton. Caroline and Ted Kennedy’s endorsement of Obama on January 28 was a critical blow to Hillary’s campaign).
Task Number Two:
Defining Obama’s Politics: Anyone who has talked to Obama knows he genuinely believes in ending the cultural wars that have poisoned the politics of past generation; and, whether you agree with his solutions or not, he has given great thought to the condition and state of America—its problems, its strengths, and how to initiate a tectonic (and generational) change in political direction. What he has not done, say even many of his allies, is get very specific during the campaign about programs, numbers, legislation. (See Task 4.)
Mark Warner’s keynote speech was on a plane not usually in evidence at conventions: subtle, powerful, inspirational, cerebral, practical – and as convincing a case as can be made for the underpinnings of Obama’s politics and a post-Bush, post-Clinton, post-partisan agenda. He made the connection between the man and his politics. Substantively, there were reminders of how thoughtful, humane, and forward-looking Bill Clinton’s politics looked some 15 years ago.
Task Number Three, a Houdiniesque Proposition:
Easing the Clintons off center stage (inevitably, still kicking) and into the kind of major supporting roles in the Obama campaign that capture all the unique Clintonian star power, and even compels Hillary and Bill Clinton to help Barack Obama win the presidency.
This Houdiniesque proposition recognizes that the Clintons, campaigning for Obama in the right places, and pushing the right political and media buttons, can deliver as no other Democrats in America. And that it is in their interests to do so, thus rescuing Bill Clinton’s damaged legacy from a brutal primary season’s beating (and his own self-destructive instincts); and even further enhancing Hillary’s stature as a leader in the party and the nation — without further threatening Obama.
Hillary’s speech last night was the crucial first step: a huge stride toward uniting her genuine movement of women and blue-collar workers with Obama’s formidable new Democratic movement that almost couldn’t close the deal by the end of the primary-caucus season. If she and Obama can fuse those two movements in Denver without a divisive struggle on the convention floor (as seems likely), Obama is a lot closer to being able to win the presidency than he was a week ago. And already, Hillary has delivered for him, big-time – despite some carping that she didn’t go far enough.
Now, look for both Clintons to begin campaigning in critical battleground states as early next week. And for Bill Clinton to deliver a powerful speech on Obama’s behalf tonight, throwing the hall into predictably pandemonious excess (as did Hillary), leaving no doubt among Democrats of all persuasions that John McCain and Bush-Republican policies are a totally unacceptable alternative to Barack Obama.
A footnote to the ongoing Clintonian psychodrama that, as usual and quite reasonably, has mesmerized the media and continues to hang over the political landscape in Denver and beyond:
First, the essential dynamic: that the Clintons do not like Obama, hate how he systematically went about burying their attempt at a Clintonian restoration to the presidency; and they have never found it easy to be gracious in defeat. The final, gratuitously vicious wound (in their view) was Obama’s decision not to make Hillary his vice presidential nominee.
Fact: Once the “Atlantic Monthly Memos” were published — with Mark Penn’s overt strategy of smearing Barack Obama as coming from an “unAmerican” background — there was virtually no chance Hillary would have been acceptable to Obama or his wife. The only possibility, say his aides: if it were indelibly clear that he could not win the presidency without putting her on the ticket.
Obama and his small cadre of top aides were convinced there is a far better way, without the oxygen-consuming formula of Hillary-as-Veep now on display at the convention: Put the Clintons to work for the Obama-Biden ticket, getting them to fly the Democratic flag against John McCain, and — based on Obama’s real respect for them both and their singular accomplishments – giving them outsized roles in national life during an Obama administration.
Meanwhile, the Clintons — as if to underscore the personal (as differentiated from simply political) chasm between Obama and themselves — let it be known that Mark Penn had a hand in drafting both their convention speeches.
Task Number Four:
Delivering — beyond the Obama aura and the oratory — with specifics: His speech on the last night of the convention. It is instructive to watch Obama’s remarkable speech to the 2004 Democratic convention: he must do it one better in 2008, laying out a vision for the country under his leadership that is specific enough (his top aides seem to agree) to put an end to the Clinton-McCain refrain that he’s all about oratory.
He — and others, including Joe Biden tonight — will be addressing the supposed commander-in-chief gap and the “3 a.m.” assertions that he’s not ready to lead. Look for a passel of generals to be on-stage with Obama in the stadium tomorrow night.
Obama beat the toughest Democratic machine of modern times, and a candidate considered by the media, the pollsters and most of the political class to be the Democrats’ inevitable nominee. He did it by staying on message; out-organizing the Clinton campaign in state after state; harnessing the power of a new generation of voters; and utilizing a set of tools (particularly the Internet) that his opponents vastly underestimated.
The most consistent aspect of the Obama campaign from the beginning has been its discipline, and the nominee’s control of his own message and apparat. Thus far, the Denver convention seems to be on that same track.