Heilemann: Why the Democrats Are Failing in Denver

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bill clinton
Bill Clinton at the DNC yesterday. Photo: Gettyn Images

Hillary Clinton's speech last night in Denver was obviously a performance with an extraordinarily high degree of difficulty, both in terms of the pressure on her to unify the party and of standing in front of a convention she believes should have been hers, vouching for her rival. In that context, her turn at the podium was incredibly impressive, its flat/rote moments easy to forgive, its high points high indeed.

When a number of her people gathered late last night at the Glover Park Group–Politico after-party, their mood was a mixture of relief and satisfaction — which was only marred when they read the story about the speech that Pat Healy posted on the New York Times' Website, which included the following line: "And her aides limited input on the speech from Obama advisers, while seeking advice from her former strategist, Mark Penn." According to a senior member of the speechwriting team, this was total bullshit, an obvious Penn leak. (Indeed, my source reports that Penn's sole contribution was a single e-mail, which the team decided to leave unopened.) The world may be in perpetual flux, but internecine warfare in Hillaryworld remains a comforting, entertaining constant.

The rest of last night was a pretty desultory spectacle. Sure, bolo-tied Montana governor Brian Schweitzer was terrific, the surprise star of the convention so far. But the rest of the speakers were only fair to middling, and keynoter Mark Warner was a disaster. (What were the Obamans thinking, choosing a keynoter who declares in advance that he will not deign to throttle the nominee's opponent?) And sure, Warner aside, there was anti-McCain red meat aplenty. But the attacks against the Arizonan were, to my ears, scattershot and less than devastating.

Like it or not, the media is measuring this convention against 2004, when the Democrats failed utterly (and intentionally!) to frame George W. Bush in effective negative terms, whereas the GOP did precisely the opposite to John Kerry. The salient question in Denver is not how loudly or harshly the Democrats assail McCain. The question is whether the party can define McCain in a way that the members of the press corps deem to be clear, compelling, and sufficiently persuasive that they adopt and apply the Democrats' preferred framing to McCain in the fall campaign. And so far the Democrats have not come close to accomplishing that objective.

Which is why tonight is so important. The two marquee speeches on the schedule, of course, are those by Bill Clinton and Joe Biden. Put aside for a moment the psychodrama surrounding WJC's oration (which, I know, is akin to asking you to ignore a 50-pound heap of donkey shit steaming in the corner of your bedroom). This is a man who knows how to give a king hell of a negative speech; how to be cutting, funny, empirical, and brutal in perfect proportion.

Or at least he used to know — before his wife's battle against Obama drove him around the bend. If Clinton can rediscover his gift for the exquisitely calibrated partisan takedown tonight, he may end up, ironically, being Obama's most effective convention surrogate. And if Biden matches and lucidly focuses the firepower he unleashed on McCain the day Obama selected him as his running mate, the Democrats may just be able to get the anti-McCain aspect of this convention on track before it is too late.