Corn has broken stories on presidents, politicians, and other Washington players. He's written for numerous publications and is a talk show regular. His best-selling books include Hubris: The Inside Story of Spin, Scandal, and the Selling of the Iraq War.
Hurricane Gustav is threatening the residents of New Orleans and the Gulf coast. It is also threatening the Republican convention in St. Paul, where John McCain will be nominated this week. Or is it helping McCain?
On Sunday afternoon, President Bush announced that due to the hurricane he would skip the GOP convention, where he and Dick Cheney were scheduled to speak on Monday night, and the McCain campaign said it would cancel most of the convention program for that day. (Cheney, too, is taking a pass on St. Paul.) Instead, Bush will head to Houston to be near hurricane rescue efforts. As if his presence there is going to matter. Bush is wisely not going to New Orleans, for a presidential visit there would surely disrupt rescue operations.
But is Bush's absence from St. Paul a win or loss for McCain? Certainly, he could do hurricane-like damage to the McCain campaign if a split-screen television shot on Monday night showed Bush addressing the GOP delegates and Gustav slamming into New Orleans. Any junior image-manipulator would know that such a thing must be avoided at all costs. Even without a hurricane, Bush's appearance at the McCain-fest in St. Paul could have been dicey. The Obama campaign is doing all it can to tie McCain to the most unpopular president in decades. No doubt, some of convention planners would have liked from the start to have a Bush-less program. But had they not invited the president, they would have created a major issue that would have dominated the convention. Now they can say, Thank God for the weather. And Bush has a good excuse for staying clear.
There is a cost. Hurricane Gustav is damn powerful reminder of Hurricane Katrina and the Bush administration's abject failure. So whether Bush is at the convention or not, the ghost of Katrina will hover over the proceedings--even if the convention planners get their thousands of delegates to eschew the parties and do volunteer work to help Gustav victims. Moreover, Gustav may rob media time and attention from the GOP effort to define--that is, delegitimize--Barack Obama. Fewer hours of convention equals fewer hours of Obama-bashing. And if there is a crisis under way, a hyper-partisan attack might seem untoward.
Gustav ought to be also a reminder of McCain's own failure to lead during the Katrina disaster. As Jonathan Stein noted in April (when McCain toured the hurricane-damaged areas of New Orleans):
But McCain's record on Hurricane Katrina suggests that he was part of the problem, not the solution. McCain was on Face the Nation on August 28, 2005, as Katrina gathered in the Gulf Coast. He said nothing about it. One day later, when Katrina made landfall in Louisiana, McCain was on a tarmac at Luke Air Force Base in Arizona, greeting President Bush with a cake in celebration of McCain's 69th birthday. Three days later, with the levees already breached and New Orleans filling with water, McCain's office released a three-sentence statement urging Americans to support the victims of the hurricane.
Though McCain issued a statement the next week calling on Congress to make sacrifices in order to fund recovery efforts, he was quoted in The New Leader on September 1 cautioning against over-spending in support of Katrina's victims. "We also have to be concerned about future generations of Americans," he said. "We're going to end up with the highest deficit, probably, in the history of this country."
Here's a visual reminder:
It's a shot that ought to be circulated widely this week--whether or not Bush is in St. Paul.
It was a historic speech on a historic night--in a remarkable setting. A crowd of tens of thousands of Americans, filling an entire stadium in the middle of the country, waved American flags and signs calling for "Change." Never in the nation's history had more Americans attended such an event. Never before had an African-American accepted the presidential nomination of a major party in the United States. And the speech of Barack Obama matched the moment.
He connected his own history--the history of a not-quite-ordinary American family--to the mythical promise of America. His rhetoric soared--as usual--but it was tethered to reality: in particular, the stark differences between how Obama would approach the challenges the nation now faces and how John McCain would do so. Obama laced his criticism of the Bush years and the possible McCain years with a dose of populism, which gave portions of the speech a sharp edge. And he brought his pitch for hope and change down to the ground with a succinct description of policy ideas he would work for as president.
Obama, as convention dictates, began with a high-minded theme: America is a land of promise, but, he declared, that promise--especially for hardworking Americans--is in jeopardy, placing the nation at a critical juncture. "These challenges are not all of government's making," he said. "But the failure to respond is a direct result of a broken politics in Washington and the failed policies of George W. Bush. America, we are better than these last eight years. We are a better country than this." Given that polls show that at least seven out of ten Americans--maybe more--believe the country is on the wrong track and a similar number of Americans disapprove of Bush, his criticism was not at all radical.
In one of the more important passages, Obama, taking a populist turn, made the case that his opponent does not understand this:
There's been some talk among pundits and progressives that the Obama campaign could use a touch more populism--especially to reach those working-class voters (read: white working-class voters). So maybe the Democratic convention could have used someone talking like this:
My focus is on working families--people trying to make house payments and car payments, working overtime to save for college and do right by their kids. Whether you're in a suburb, or an inner-city. Whether you raise crops or drive hogs and cattle on a farm, drive a big rig on the Interstate, or drive e-commerce on the Internet Whether you're starting out to raise your own family, or getting ready to retire after a lifetime of hard work
So often, powerful forces and powerful interests stand in your way, and the odds seemed stacked against you--even as you do what's right for you and your family.
How and what we do for all of you - the people who pay the taxes, bear the burdens, and live the American dream--that is the standard by which we should be judged.
That's a passage from Al Gore's feisty I-will-fight-for-you-against-powerful-interests acceptance speech at the 2000 convention. This time around, on the final night of the convention, Gore appeared at Invesco Field an hour before Barack Obama was scheduled to come out, and he spoke--no surprise--mostly about climate change. He was eloquent on the subject, as he usually is. He did take a whack at the oil and coal industries and "the forces of the status quo." But he sure did not tailor his remarks to the sort of voters he focused on in his 2000 speech.
Of course, it's not Gore's job to populist-ize the Obama campaign. That seems to be Joe Biden's mission. But Gore's speech on Thursday night--given the obvious comparison to his 2000 speech--was a reminder that something's been missing.
THIS JUST IN: Shortly after Gore spoke, the convention presented several working- or middle-class voters who explained why they were supporting Obama. One of them, Smith Barney, who lost his job in a Marian, Indiana, factory, had what was (so far) the best populist line of the night: "We need a president who puts Barney Smith before SmithBarney."
The good news for the Barack Obama camp: Joe Biden has no more big speeches to deliver between now and Election Day.
In what was the Democrats' best night of the first three, Biden capped the evening with a heartfelt speech emphasizing his middle-class roots that was marred by an irregular rhythm and a series of verbal slip-ups. He said "millions" instead of "billions." He praised Obama for working on an Illinois state health care program that provided coverage to 150 children and parents, not 150,000. Biden blasted John McCain in a predictable manner: for championing tax cuts that benefit the wealthy, for misjudgments regarding foreign policy. There were good and touching moments, such as the tribute to his mother and his empathetic recognition of the everyday challenges confronted by Americans facing hard times. And he tied the need to help working-class families to Barack Obama's appeal: "He has tapped into the oldest American belief of all: We don't have to accept a situation we cannot bear. We have the power to change it." Biden covered the bases but did not rock the house. He was no Bill Clinton. He wasn't even a John Kerry. (See Kevin's somewhat more generous take here.)
But the Obama campaign had an insurance policy. After Biden finished, Barack Obama made an unscheduled appearance and restored the energy level to the room and the convention. Working the Pepsi Center like a talk show host--has he been taking lessons from Oprah?--Obama seized control of the evening and promised a great night on Thursday, when he will accept his party's presidential nomination at Invesco Field.
The third night of the convention--Biden aside--presented a more coherent message than the previous evenings, which were dominated by the obligatory tasks of undoing the rightwing attacks on Michelle Obama and satisfying Hillary Clinton and the Hillary Hold-ons. On Thursday, it seemed as if the Obama campaign was finally able to get down to business: making the pitch.
Despite all the talk that Bill Clinton was not happy with his speaking slot at the Democratic convention or that he still was peeved by criticisms that came his way during the primaries, there was no way that Clinton would allow himself to be outshone as the orator of his party. As Kevin notes, he delivered a helluva speech on Wednesday night.
As soon as the crowd of delegates finished giving him the loudest and longest ovation of the convention (so far), Clinton declared that he was "here, first, tonight to support Barack Obama." With his trademark blending of folksiness and policy-talk, he presented a rock-solid case for Obama. Immediately, it was obvious: forget Hillary Clinton, it is Bill Clinton who has the potential to be Obama's best advocate on the campaign trail in the coming weeks,
The speech combined an effective critique of the Bush years, a sharp attack of Republican notions John McCain has embraced, and an enthusiastic endorsement of Obama as a man "ready to be president" on Day One. And it was laced with memorable lines. His rhetoric soared: