On day two of their convention, Democrats finally got some red meat.
Early in the evening, a range of the party’s best phrasemakers took turns ripping the Republicans in ways that reminded you that — somewhere between juvenile Rovian dehumanization and Jon Lovitz–as–Mike Dukakis thinking “I can’t believe I’m losing to this guy” — politics can be fun. Dennis Kucinich went nuts, attacking “war contractors” and “neocon artists” and yelling, “Wake up, America!” Governor Janet Napolitano (Arizona) made fun of John McCain’s ignorance of economics. Big Ed Rendell, the governor of Pennsylvania, finally brought up the name of Dick Cheney. The high spirits even infected Senator Bob Casey (Pennsylvania), usually among the shiest of politicians, who got off a great line about McCain and George W. Bush: “That’s not a maverick, that’s a sidekick.”
The easiest way to see these speakers was to put on CNN. Not because CNN was showing them, mind you, but because if you watch this convention on CNN for more than a few minutes, you will be so desperate to get cable news off your screen that you’ll switch to unfiltered coverage on C-SPAN or PBS. CNN’s handheld cameras zoom toward and away from touch-screen maps for no discernible reason. Its incessant self-promotion now extends to running a full-screen introductory graphic called “King’s Clips” every time Larry King shows a video. And it’s got lots and lots of coverage that is just dumb, bottoming out on Tuesday night when Hilary Rosen managed to describe Casey for viewers without mentioning the most interesting thing about his politics, which is that he is pro-life.
Anyway, Barack Obama’s keynote choice to bridge the flamethrowers to Hillary Clinton was Mark Warner, cell-phone gazillionaire and technocratic former governor of a red state (Virginia). Unfortunately but predictably, Warner sounded like he rolled out of bed ready to give a brown-bag lunch at the New America Foundation; the tipping point for audience dozing came somewhere around the time he started talking about an IT job opening in Lebanon, Virginia. And when Warner said, “This election isn’t about liberal versus conservative,” he summoned the dread ghost of Dukakis, who told conventioneers in 1988, “This election isn’t about ideology, it’s about competence.” Somehow, crowds chanting “Competence! Competence!” never materialized in the streets back then, and they’re not going to be rallying for Warner’s vacuous, tautological “future versus past,” either. What a buzzkill.
It turns out the Democrats actually bumped Warner from the 10 p.m. hour because he was unwilling to attack McCain, according to Fox News. Kinda makes you wonder why he bothered to show up at the, you know, Democratic convention. Governor Brian Schweitzer (Montana), a savvy soil scientist with a bolo tie, got the slot instead. And he got the proceedings back on track, wrapping up his speech with, “That’s it, baby! Let’s go win this election!”
And then Herself took the stage. Earlier in the day, Hillary’s fashion advisers had brought several different pantsuit jackets to the podium, to see which color would work best. They went with biohazard orange, the color-wheel opposite of the blue podium background, creating the starkest possible focus on Mrs. Clinton. A video introduced her as a rocking feminist, and then she delivered probably the best speech of her career.
Hillary has rounded out the flat tone that used to make her sound so grating and has eased up on her cackle. But she was direct, not elegiac or even sentimental. She made the case for her own candidacy, then pulled the neat trick of hooking her supporters to Obama by challenging them to defeat McCain: “Were you in this campaign just for me?” She also got off a whole batch of good lines, calling McCain “four more years of the last eight years” and lampooning him for showing up in the Twin Cities with Bush. And while comparing the Underground Railroad to the travails of modern Democratic apparatchiks gets absurd if you think about it too closely, whichever speechwriter thought of quoting Harriet Tubman, a black woman who said, “Keep going,” earned her or his pay for the week.
Great political speeches blow away petty questions about ambition (like “What does Hillary really want?”) by fusing the personal and the political, by making you believe in the speaker as the vessel of your hopes. On Tuesday night, even watching on TV, you could feel the familiar rhythms of Hillary amping up her supporters give way to the generosity (however rooted in self-interest) of her transferring their hopes to Obama.
And now the only thing standing in the way of Obama’s closing the deal is that Bill Clinton will speak first.