Friday, August 29, 2008

Convention notes from Peggy Noonan

As for Bill Clinton's speech, halfway through I thought: The Master has arrived. Crazy Bill, the red-faced Rageaholic, was somewhere else. This was Deft Political Pro Bill doing what no one had been able to do up to this point at the convention, and that is make the case for Barack Obama. He lambasted the foe, asserted Obama's growth on the trail, argued that he was the right man for the job and did that as a man who once held that job and is remembered, at least in terms of domestic policy and at least by half the country, as having done it pretty darn well. He gave his full imprimatur to a crowd that believes he has an imprimatur to give. As Clinton spoke a friend IM'd, "What is this, the Clinton convention?" The fact is, until both Clintons spoke, it was. Now oddly enough it isn't. Now eyes turn, and finally, to Obama. This was one of the great tee-ups.

The Hillary speech was the best of her career. Toward Obama she was exactly as gracious as she is capable of being. Mrs. Clinton's speeches are rarely notable for great lines but this one had a number of them. "It makes sense that George Bush and John McCain will be together next week in the Twin Cities, because these days they're awfully hard to tell apart." KAPOW. We'll be hearing more of that one. "Sisterhood of the travelling pantsuits" - funny and self aware. She normally doesn't use the teleprompter - actually it's rare for her to use one -- but last night she did, and she proved herself the most gifted pol on the prompter in current political history.

Her statement from the floor during the rollcall? Fabulous. The decision to put Obama over the top and ask for acclamation? Masterly. Mrs. Clinton's actions this week have been pivotal not only for Obama, but for her. She showed herself capable of appearing to put party first. I also believe she has come to appreciate both emotionally and intellectually The Importance of Being Teddy. She will not be the president of the United States the next four years, but she can ease herself into the role of Teddy Kennedy-esque fighter for her issues in the Senate. And that I think is exactly where she means to go, and what she means to be. And that, for her, is a brilliant move. Really: brilliant. Here's one reason: Teddy is, throughout his party, beloved. Beloved would be something very new for Hillary.

The general thinking among thinking journalists, as opposed to journalists who merely follow the journalistic line of the day, is that the change of venue Thursday night to Invesco Field, and the huge, open air Obama acceptance speech of the biggest and possibly craziest gambles of this or any other presidential campaign of the modern era. Everyone can define what can go wrong, and no one can quite define what "great move" would look like. It has every possibility of looking like a Nuremberg rally; it has too many variables to guarantee a good tv picture; the set, the Athenian columns, looks hokey; big crowds can get in the way of subtle oratory. My own added thought is that speeches are delicate; they're words in the air, and when you've got a ceiling the words can sort of go up to that ceiling and come back down again. But words said into an open air stadium.can just get lost in echoes, and misheard phrases. People working the technical end of the event are talking about poor coordination, unclear planning, and a Democratic National Committee that just doesn't seem capable of decisive and sophisticated thinking.

So: this all does seem very much a gamble. At a Time magazine event Wednesday afternoon, Obama campaign manager David Plouffe suggested the power of the stadium event is in this: it's meant to be a metaphor for the openness and inclusiveness that has marked the Obama campaign. Open stadium, 60,000 people - "we're opening this up to average Americans." We'll see. In my experience when political professionals start talking metaphors there's usually good reason to get nervous. (Questions: how many of the 60,000 will be Coloradans? Are a lot of the tickets going to out of staters? Are they paying for tickets? Is the Mile High event actually a fundraiser? What's the top ticket going for?)

More on Plouffe. Here are things he said. "It's gonna be a close election. If anything breaks it will break late." "There are 18 states we're focusing on." McCain has a woman problem because "if he's elected, Roe versus Wade will be outlawed." McCain's campaign has an "intensity deficit." "One thing we never run into out there is a John McCain field organization." If McCain's vice presidential nominee is Mitt Romney, "They're doubling down on out-of-touch." Plouffe talked a lot about increasing the turnout of registered voters who did not vote in 2004. He spoke a lot about winning or losing various states on the margins. This elicited a rather piercing question from Mike Murphy. He said that in his experience as a political strategist, when the talk turns to things like winning states by upping the share of registered voters who missed the last election, that talk is usually indicative of a message deficit. Plouffe didn't really have an answer.

We all tend to see this campaign as the endless campaign. It started right after the '06 election, was in full gear in '07, has reached party resolutions the past few months, and now the general election is off and going. But Plouffe said something that reminded me the endless campaign is nearing its ending. A lot of people start voting in 40 days, with absentee ballots. Forty days! This thing really is going to end.

Michelle Obama's speech was solid, but not a home run. First impression: She is so beautiful. Beautifully dressed, beautifully groomed, confident, smiling, a compelling person. But her speech seemed to me more the speech of a candidate, and not a candidate's spouse. It was full of problems and issues. I continue to be of the Dennis Thatcher School of Political Spouses: Let the candidate do the seriousness of the issues, you do the excellence of the candidate. This is old fashioned but nonetheless I think still applicable. It has made Laura Bush (with a few forays into relatively anodyne policy questions) the most popular First Lady in modern American political history.

Another problem with the Michelle speech. In order to paint both her professional life and her husband's, and in order to communicate what she feels is his singular compassion, she had to paint an America that is darker, sadder, grimmer, than most Americans experience their country to be. And this of course is an incomplete picture, an incorrectly weighted picture. Sadness and struggle are part of life, but so are guts and verve and achievement and success and hardiness and.triumph. Democrats always get this wrong. Republicans get it wrong too, but in a different way.

Democrats in the end speak most of, and seem to hold the most sympathy for, the beset-upon single mother without medical coverage for her children, and the soldier back from the war who needs more help with post-traumatic stress disorder. They express the most sympathy for the needy, the yearning, the marginalized and unwell. For those, in short, who need more help from the government, meaning from the government's treasury, meaning the money got from taxpayers. Who happen, also, to be a generally beset-upon group.

Democrats show little expressed sympathy for those who work to make the money the government taxes to help the beset-upon mother and the soldier and the kids. They express little sympathy for the middle-aged woman who owns a small dry cleaner and employs six people and is, actually, day to day, stressed and depressed from the burden of state, local and federal taxes, and regulations, and lawsuits, and meetings with the accountant, and complaints as to insufficient or incorrect efforts to meet guidelines regarding various employee/employer rules and regulations. At Republican conventions they express sympathy for this woman, as they do for those who are entrepreneurial, who start businesses and create jobs and build things. Republicans have, that is, sympathy for taxpayers. But they don't dwell all that much, or show much expressed sympathy for, the sick mother with the uninsured kids, and the soldier with the shot nerves.

Neither party ever gets it quite right, the balance between the taxed and the needy, the suffering of one sort and the suffering of another. You might say that in this both parties are equally cold and equally warm, only to two different classes of citizens.

By the way, the best line of the convention so far? Ted Strickland of Ohio, when he echoed the 1988 Democratic convention joke about George H.W. Bush, that he was born on third and thought he hit a triple. Strickland said of George W. Bush that he was born on third and then stole second. It didn't get much attention in any of the commentary, but it's all people were talking about in the bars of Denver that night.

I'll end with Ted Kennedy's speech. It was a small masterpiece of generosity. Not only that he showed up, not only that he spoke, but that with every right to speak of himself and his career, with every right to speak about his family and his memories and the lessons he's learned and the great things he's seen, with all the right to dwell on those things he produced: a speech about Barack Obama. Telling America to vote for him. How classy was that? Very.


Assessing Biden: Snore

I don't think I've ever heard a more predictable speech by a candidate on a major party ticket. That's not quite the same as a bad speech, but I'm reminded of a joke I heard from Obama about two years ago. "We've reached the point where everything that needs to be said has been said, but not everyone who needs to say it has said it." The predictable pudding that lacked a theme:
America has never had it worse, nevermind the "malaise" and hostage crisis of the Carter years, the chaos of the late 60s, the Great Depression, the Civil War... an increase in the median income, an unchanged, and a drop in the uninsured in the past year are additional signs of impending irreversible catastrophe.

George W. Bush and John McCain are the same.

We have no allies anymore. Only electing Obama will make the world love us again.

The surge didn't happen. Iraq is endless chaos. Obama's 16 month withdrawal plan will fix everything.

Community organizing on the South Side is perfect training to be president. A nuclear weapons bill that passed by unanimous consent is the major legislative accomplishment of our time.

There was nothing in this speech that was surprising. Nothing that Biden hasn't said a thousand times before. If you've been covering him since the beginning of this race, this was every one of Biden's campaign speeches put in a blender, with some of his surrogate work he's done since Obama won the nomination thrown in for spice.

I suppose if someone in America had never encountered Joe Biden before, they might have liked his combativeness. I've liked it at times in the past. But tonight, Biden was... reheated leftovers.

UPDATE: Hey, when the whole Biden brood was up on stage, was the lobbyist son up there, too? He certainly wasn't mentioned.


As nation watches Denver, Obama campaign muscles Chicago station over ex-radical Ayres

In a surprising attempt to stifle broadcast criticism of its candidate, the presidential campaign of freshman Illinois senator Barack Obama is organizing supporters to confront Chicago's WGN radio station for having a critic of the Illinois Democrat on its main evening discussion program.
"WGN radio is giving right-wing hatchet man Stanley Kurtz a forum to air his baseless, fear-mongering terrorist smears," Obama's campaign wrote in an e-mail sent to supporters. "He's currently scheduled to spend a solid two-hour block from 9:00 to 11:00 p.m. (Wednesday night) pushing lies, distortions, and manipulations about Barack and University of Illinois professor William Ayers."

Kurtz, a conservative writer, recently wrote an article for the National Review that examined Obama's ties to Ayers, a former 1960s radical who helped found a protest group that advocated violence. The magazine was blocked in its initial attempts to obtain records from the University of Illinois at Chicago regarding the Chicago Annenberg Challenge, a school reform project that Obama chaired and Ayers co-founded. As The Ticket reported here, the school later reserved its position and opened the records Tuesday. Media organizations are poring over scores of boxes of documents to study the Obama-Ayres relationship, which the senator has described as merely casual.

Obama's campaign is urging supporters to call the radio station to complain. "Tell WGN that.... by providing Kurtz with airtime, they are legitimizing baseless attacks from a smear-merchant and lowering the standards of political discourse," the note said. WGN, like the Chicago Tribune and The Times, is owned by Tribune Co. As a clear-channel station at 720 on the AM dial, WGN's signal reaches dozens of states. Such efforts to prevent programs often backfire by calling even more public attention to the controversy.

"It is absolutely unacceptable that WGN would give a slimy character assassin like Kurtz time for his divisive, destructive ranting on our public airwaves," the note continued. "At the very least, they should offer sane, honest rebuttal to every one of Kurtz's lies."

Zack Christenson, executive producer of the longrunning interview program "Extension 720 with Milt Rosenburg," said the response from Obama supporters was strong. Rosenberg like Ayres is a college professor. "I would say this is the biggest response we've ever got from a campaign or a candidate," said Christenson. "This is really unprecedented with the show, the way that people are flooding the calls and our email boxes."

Christenson also stressed that the Obama campaign was invited to send a representative to appear on the show to balance the discussion of the newly-opened documents. But the campaign headquarters just down Michigan Avenue from the station refused the request. This is not the first time Obama's organization has sought to steer supporters to influence a broadcast outlet airing criticism.


Colour isn't the problem for Obama

THE arrest in Denver of some gun-toting, meth-fuelled white supremacists supposedly bent on assassinating Barack Obama neatly fits a narrative that has considerable appeal for many observers of the 2008 campaign. There's a common view among Democrats and their supporters in the media that the reason Obama is struggling to gain a lead in the polls in what should be a banner year for the Democrats is simple: racism.

Four-fifths of Americans say the US is on the wrong track, the Republicans in Congress are heading for a setback of historic proportions, and the desire for political change is palpable. But Obama is running neck and neck with John McCain. And it's clear from the polls that his big problem is among working-class white voters (ie rednecks). QED: a black man can't get elected president.

There are a lot of things wrong with this idea besides the tone of patronising metropolitan elitism. No one doubts there are Americans for whom a candidate's race is enough to disqualify them from the presidency. But there is no reason to think such influence in this election is decisive. For one thing, the Democratic candidate's race is an advantage in some respects. Two large demographic groups whose turnout in presidential elections is notoriously low - blacks and young people - look certain to vote for Obama in November in larger numbers than they have ever voted before. That might be enough to counterbalance the racist vote.

The racism argument also forgets that the majority of white working-class voters have not voted for Democratic candidates for decades. Since Ronald Reagan swung blue-collar voters behind him in 1980, no Democrat has won a majority of that vote. In fact, Obama is faring the same among white voters without a college education as John Kerry did in 2004, at 38 per cent, the latest poll average shows.

However, given the changes in the relative strength of the two parties in the past four years, he should be doing better. So why isn't he? Part of the answer is provided in a new study of voters in one of the most closely scrutinised places in the US. Stanley Greenberg is the Democratic pollster who broke new ground in the study of voting behaviour with an analysis of the Reagan Democrats in Macomb County, Michigan, in the 1980s. White blue-collar voters in this Detroit suburb voted two-to-one for Reagan in 1984.

In his analysis, based on focus groups with former Democratic voters, Greenberg found race was a significant factor among these white working-class voters. They interpreted Democratic calls for economic fairness in the 1980s as a veiled plan to channel government money towards African-Americans and they strongly disapproved. Greenberg was influential later in crafting Bill Clinton's "New Democratic" message of personal responsibility alongside economic fairness, which won over the Reagan Democrats.

Greenberg returned to Macomb County last month to gauge opinion about Obama. He found high levels of dissatisfaction with the state of the country but a surprising degree of doubt about the Democratic nominee. He was winning the support of only half those who said they thought the country was on the wrong track.

Race clearly played a part with some voters. But according to Greenberg, colour is less of an issue than it was in the 1980s. "Macomb voters do not seem to be voting predominantly on race," the study concludes. Instead, Obama faces two problems. The first is his failure to connect with voters on their economic anxieties. This seems to be a result of his decision to campaign on the loftier goals of change and renewal, and not on unemployment and falling wages.

The other concern was doubt about Obama's suitability to be commander-in-chief. Macomb voters are more focused on national security today than they were 25 years ago, and they worry about Obama's inexperience. They also express doubts about his patriotism, often citing the anti-US remarks of his pastor in Chicago, Jeremiah Wright. In short, Obama's biggest problems lie in his own perceived political weaknesses, not in the colour of his skin.


Has He Lost His Mind?
"Democratic presidential candidate Barack Obama's big speech on Thursday night will be delivered from an elaborate columned stage resembling a miniature Greek temple.

The stage, similar to structures used for rock concerts, has been set up at the 50-yard-line, the midpoint of Invesco Field, the stadium where the Denver Broncos' National Football League team plays.

Some 80,000 supporters will see Obama appear from between plywood columns painted off-white, reminiscent of Washington's Capitol building or even the White House, to accept the party's nomination for president.

He will stride out to a raised platform to a podium that can be raised from beneath the floor."

The Berlin folly -- in English.

The Superbowl Halftime Show -- without the game.

What's the finish? Maybe Obama's got Zhang Yimou to do the hidden-rope trick, and have him lifted, Beijing-style, to the heavens when he's done. Will he reappear three days later at the Bird's Nest?

Or maybe he'll just do a Napoleon and coronate himself. By the time Napoleon made himself emperor, he had won the Battles of Lodi, of Arcole, of Rivoli, of the Pyramids and of Marengo. And had promugulated the Napoleonic Code. He had yet to write a single autobiography


Change 'Till You Barf!

By Alan Caruba

In the run-up to the opening of the Democrat convention Monday evening, I listened to the usual Democrat politicians being interviewed on the Sunday shows and it did not take long until it occurred to me that I was, in fact, watching a group of automatons who had been programmed to say 'change' as often as possible.

It was nauseating. It will be nauseating. If I could get the Democrat National Committee to send me a dollar for every time the word 'change' will be uttered between now and the end of the convention, I will be able to retire in comfort.

All elections are about change. That is to say, the party in power wants its supporters to vote against change, i.e., to elect its candidates to further its agenda, and the party out of power wants its supporters to vote the current rascals out so the Great Work of America can be transferred to their greedy hands.

Let us understand that what passes for government in Washington, D.C. is entirely devoted to dividing up the money that taxes and other levies accrue to that drained swamp. The party in power, the majority, gets to spend the money to the benefit of its constituents and special interests. The minority party is mostly just flat out of luck.

It has far less to do with governance than simple piracy, extortion, and connivance.

Sen. Barack Obama, a man who has possibly spent less time in the Senate chambers than previous elected members who had the misfortune of dying soon after taking office or possibly en route, has managed up to now to wage a brilliant campaign based solely on 'change.'

He has fashioned himself into a messiah who is going to chase the money changers from the sacred halls of Congress, banish the lobbyists, and 'require' Americans to lose weight, drive smaller cars or take the bus, end our dependence on anything and everything made from oil, blah, blah, blah. And, oh yes, pay more taxes.

The Obama version of 'change' may not sit well with voters as they begin to contemplate it between now and Election Day.

Indeed, several nights of listening to Democrats rant about 'change' may just produce a reaction quite contrary to their expectations and their assumptions.

Primary among those assumptions is that the voters are so dumb that, if you repeat the same phrases over and over again, those idiot voters will march like zombies to the polls and pull the Democrat levers. Underestimating the intelligence of voters is always a bad idea.

I have no idea what the Republican convention will sound like, but my guess is that it will be a far more low-key affair and one that actually deals with reality as opposed to trying to convince voters that the nation is in a 'Depression', that Osama bin Laden will quit trying to destroy America, and that if we just talk nicely with Vladimir Putin, Hugo Chavez, Mamoud Amadinejad and the host of other gangsters running a big chunk of the world, they will accommodate us.

I am pretty sure we will not hear Democrats tell us that part of the change they want is to give more money to the United Nations as Sen. Obama proposes. We will not hear about drilling for the billions of barrels of domestic oil we have or utilizing the nation's century's worth of coal.

Whoever is elected the next President of the United States is going to face the kind of 'change' that no one, not the candidates and not the voters, can possibly anticipate. It will be along the lines of the change that occurred on 9/11. It will be the kind of change that a Category Five hurricane produces. It will be an economy struggling to revive from the unanticipated change inflicted by feckless, greedy banking and lending institutions.

The only change I want is someone old enough and wise enough to know that and with the steely courage to deal with it.



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