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CB's Notebook

August 25, 2008
The convention’s a big story unfolding

This commentary first appeared on AC360/CNN.COM on August 25, 2008

By Carl Bernstein

A few observations as the convention is about to convene:

This is Barack Obama’s convention. It will have his stamp on it, including ushering the Clintons off center-stage and into supporting roles-however reluctantly.

It is also a Democratic Party convention, with threads of history and some immutable principles since the 1960s-especially regarding civil rights, women’s rights, and a certain perspective on economic issues. The Clintons are (whatever their shortcomings) a big part of that story, especially the successful parts: Bill Clinton is the only Democrat to be elected twice to the presidency since FDR.

The Clintons-like Ted Kennedy, who will be powerfully present tonight-do not want to see the presidency turned over to John McCain or four more years of Republican policies: remember, they have spent their adult lives fighting against the Republican Right….even to the extent of Hillary Clinton labeling it “the vast right-wing conspiracy.”

We journalists, especially on television in the past few days, have placed far too much emphasis on recent polls, a notable example being trying to divine the effect of Joe Biden’s addition to the ticket within hours of his being named. This is silly.

The presidency will be won in the electoral college, something very different than national polls about the popular vote. Polls can be good snapshots, useful tools-but, as Mark Penn and Hillary Clinton learned, they can be far off-course.

Barack Obama confounded almost every poll to defeat Hillary Clinton-and concentrated on superior organization, the consistency of his message (sometimes perhaps vague in terms of what he would specifically do as president), and remarkable discipline. Most Republican professionals I have talked to believe he has a large organizational advantage in the states he must win to become president.

Bill Clinton-not Hillary-has been the big loser in this election thus far; his legacy was tarnished by his conduct during the campaign, and he knows he must give a great speech for Barack Obama at this convention to regain much of the respect he lost even among Democrats who had all but worshipped him.

Hillary Clinton’s acolytes—with a certain percentage excepted—are unlikely to move in droves to a McCain-Republican, pro-life conservative message, no matter how disaffected they might feel as a result of the bruising primaries and caucuses.

Barack Obama’s principal campaign aides are, in private, forthright in their recognition that their candidate—and Michelle Obama—must raise their “comfort level” with many American voters. The convention, they say, from beginning to end, is intended to do just that, culminating in Obama’s last-evening acceptance speech, in which he will (they say) be more specific than in the past about his plans for the presidency.

Race is a big part of this story, and perhaps the biggest unknown factor. We who are covering the campaign shouldn’t shy away from the subject, even if the two candidates (at least in their words) stay away from it.

Perhaps we reporters need to let this convention happen in real time, with a little less speculation on our part, and more reporting. That doesn’t mean we shouldn’t be analyzing and challenging and interpreting even doing some informed speculation. But there is going to be a hell of a story unfolding before our eyes this week, and we oughtn’t divert our eyes and ears too much from it, and in the process focus on a heap of ephemera.



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