Might Minneapolis-St. Paul look like something of a damp squib?
For all the criticism levelled at the Obama campaign for being ‘presumptuous’, it is difficult to deny that they put on a pretty spectacular show at the end of an optimistic and, for Democratic Party activists, uplifting Convention.
I managed to get a Community Credential at the very last moment, so made it in only a couple of hours before Obama spoke. The atmosphere is difficult to describe – somewhere between a fantastic sporting occasion (Rugby World Cup Final, or a what I imagine the Superbowl to be like), with all the paraphernalia of a political party conference. ‘Flag-waving’ is so often used as a perjoritive adjective, but in this context it was so apt as to add to the general sense of frustrated, anticipative euphoria.
I have been somewhat critical this week of the excessive optimism of the Democratic activists, but that should not be mistaken for complacency. Their optimism stems from seeing quite how energetic and motivated their base is, and how readily they are attracting working people who never thought they would vote against the Republicans. When Daily Kos ran a series of articles by its leader writers, each picking a previous election with which to draw parallels, I though they missed the most apposite of them all. Re-reading Hunter S Thompson’s Fear and Loathing on the Campaign Trail ’72, you realise that this coalition of under-25s, African-Americans, anti-war activists and insurgent activists is not new, but that unlike in 1972 they have an electric candidate and a truly professional organisation that can translate that euphoria into votes in a more effective way than ever before. Also, by making peace with the Party establishment (working with the Clintons, choosing Biden, getting the Kennedy endorsements), they are avoiding the worst mistakes that McGovern made – picking an unreliable entity for VP, and alienating the party machine (Mayor Daley and the Union masters like George Meany).
I arrived in time to see Governors Kaine and Richardson, followed by Al Gore, with a musical interlude by Stevie Wonder. Then came VP nominee Joe Biden, and Obama’s senior partner in the Illinois delegation to the US Senate, Majority Whip Dick Durbin. Interspersed with Generals and Admirals, Teamsters and Teachers, the build-up to what I thought was Obama’s strongest (and I choose that word carefully) address to date ensured that he would not fail to meet expectations. I try to be as cynical as possible at political events, though I rarely succeed. This, however, was in a different bracket altogether – this event left you breathless.
The main difference, as many have noted, was that the loftier rhetoric was preceded by an unashamed policy speech – covering the economy, national security, energy, medicare – the full gamut. There was a more strident, purposeful tone. Shorter sentences (“Enough!” comes to mind), more incisive jokes, and a careful balance between respecting John McCain personally (he got a round of applause for his military service) and hammering him for his recent political manoeuvers. ‘Change’ was still the theme, but it was superseded by the notion of ‘Promise’, with all the added weight that implies.
In some ways, it was easier for the Democrats. They are running against an historically-unpopular two-term Republican administration, with unresolved conflicts overseas, and dire economic circumstances at home. There is never any shortage of material to use against your opponents in those circumstances, and they managed to use all of their big names to punch the message home.
Conversely, the Republicans are in something of a pickle. Their nominee, whilst in my opinion the best candidate they could have chosen, is not the most-loved member of his Party. There are no obvious candidates for VP (a decision we expect to be announced today) who will enthuse the GOP without alienating at least some of the core vote, and they are being forced to defend an administration that the country no longer supports.
Perhaps the most telling thing about the Bush-Cheney years is the disappointment that is felt by so many on the American Right. Isolationists have been upset by the Iraq War, deficit hawks appalled by the near three trillion dollar national debt, and in spite of also holding both houses of Congress, Bush was never able to reward his evangelical base by appointing Justices to the Supreme Court who would overturn Roe v Wade. It is not easy to find any conservative group, other than the neo-conservatives themselves, who can claim that the last eight years have been a success. Inevitably, the RNC Convention will have to play into the theme that this election is a referendum on Barack Obama’s potential to lead, meaning the tone of the Convention will be inherently negative.
Now that one of the few popular stars of the Party, California Governor Arnold Schwartznegger, may not be able to attend, there must be a real danger that the RNC gets nothing like the sort of bounce that the Obama campaign has begin to register. Failure to catch Obama quickly after the success of this week could be fatal for McCain’s chances. He needs something out of the ordinary, either from his VP pick, or from the Convention itself. I’m not entirely sure how McCain can light the touch paper from such a difficult position, but if he does find ‘it’, he might want to share his findings with Gordon Brown, ahead of this month’s Labour Party Conference.