Heilemann: Emerging Themes From a Different Kind of Convention

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I have been attending Democratic conventions for twenty years — my first was Atlanta in 1988, at which I watched (literally, from a few yards away) Rob Lowe pick up the lady who later that night would perform on-camera acts of a nonpolitical variety that would usher in the era of the scandalous celebrity sex tape — and let me tell you, this one just feels different. In part, it's because of the historic nature of Barack Obama's candidacy. In part, it's because of the simmering tensions between his camp and the Clintons and their supporters, which has everyone in the party on tenterhooks as they await Her and His performances tonight and tomorrow, respectively. And in part, it's because of the fact that Obama and John McCain are unexpectedly (to almost all Democrats, and many Republicans, too) running neck and neck. The sense here is that much is both at stake and at risk. That Obama has had a rough August, that he needs this convention to really hit the bull's-eye or he'll be in serious trouble. The faithful are psyched, still audaciously hopeful, but also palpably nervous. They are wringing their hands even as they grip their cocktail tumblers — no mean feat, to be sure, but these are Democrats, after all.

The first day of a convention is always hard to rate in isolation; its effectiveness can only clearly be gauged in the context of what follows. But four things about yesterday jump out to me as worthy of remark.

1. As everyone, including even the stony-heartedest Republicans, agreed in its aftermath, Ted Kennedy's turn at the podium was an emotional tour de force. When Kennedy was diagnosed with brain cancer earlier this year, it seemed improbable that he would make it to Denver, let alone appear onstage, looking so strong, not the least bit diminished, and deliver a message so lucid and impassioned. A different set of doubts surrounded the speech delivered by Michelle Obama, but those too were dispelled. As with the Kennedy oration, the reaction to Michelle's performance was almost universally positive. In the face of persistent, insidious Republican efforts to portray her as an angry, elitist, unpatriotic, honky-hating radical, she humanized herself as a daughter and a mother, grounded herself in the working-class experience, displayed humility and empathy, and presented her husband in terms diametrically opposed to the GOP caricature of him. Between her and Teddy, you could hardly have asked for a pair of more successful opening-night set pieces.

2. So why in God's name were these two speeches an hour apart? Especially when what came between them was basically pretty awful. Senator Claire McCaskill, a terrific person and promising national politician, turned in a themeless pudding that fell flat in the hall, and former Republican congressman Jim Leach was so thuddingly dull that he sucked the air right out of the room. Memo to Team Obama: Pacing matters, especially on TV.

3. The most common critique of the first night was that it was insufficiently harsh toward McCain, failing to systematically strafe him as a putative perpetuator of the George W. Bush regime. Making this argument most forcefully and publicly were two old Clinton hands: James Carville and Paul Begala. Count me among those who believe this criticism is misplaced. Not that James and Paul are wrong that such strafing needs to occur. But they should remember as well as anyone how important it was to introduce Bill Clinton to the country at the 1992 convention — how essential were the biographical, Man From Hope elements of that conclave. The Obama people know from their internal polling that their guy remains a mystery to much of the electorate, and as long as that lack of clarity remains, it provides fertile ground for the Republicans to prey on with their insinuations and lies about his exotic, vaguely un-American otherness. And the same is true of Michelle. As former Clinton communications czar Howard Wolfson put it on his spanking new blog, Gotham Acme, "Last night was not a night for policy or attacks on John McCain. It was instead an effort to shore up the image of Michelle Obama and help Americans become comfortable with her as First Lady."

4. The question of just how unified the party will be coming out of Denver remains a very open question — much more open than many expected even a few days ago. The performances of Hillary and Bill the next two nights will go some way toward answering it, but not all the way. A goodly chunk, maybe 20 percent, of Hillary's supporters are bitter-enders; others, however, are open to Obama but remain less than convinced. The question is whether, beyond all the idiotic rantings of the PUMA faction, the hopemonger's people have taken up this task with sufficient seriousness in the months since Obama claimed the nomination — or whether they underestimated the challenge that they faced in winning over Hillary's people. I'm not alone in thinking increasingly that the answer might be the latter. One top Obama adviser said the same thing to me as we trundled out of the Pepsi Center last night, adding darkly that the miscalculation might end up costing the Democrats the election.