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.
The first evening of the Democratic convention was Warm and Fuzzy Night. There were a host of speeches over several hours. Veterans, workers, elected officials of different colors and genders, and common folks addressed the thousands of delegates in Denver's Pepsi Center. But none of that mattered. The two main prime-time features were a tribute to Senator Ted Kennedy, who is fighting brain cancer, and Michelle-fest, a celebration of Barack Obama's wife. After a film highlighting Kennedy's long political career and his passion for sailing, the liberal lion of the Senate delivered a rousing speech declaring "the dream lives on." It was an emotional moment--and an authentic one. Minutes later, the convention turned to its next order of business: demonstrating to voters that Michelle Obama is a fine woman, who loves her fine family, and who would make a fine first lady. Throughout the night, there was not much bashing of the most unpopular president in recent decades and little smacking of John McCain.
The iconification of Michelle Obama--daughter, wife, mother and professional--was perhaps an obligatory exercise. Narrating a film about her daughter, Michelle Obama's mother revealed that Michelle is a "wonderful, caring mother" who has been able to "find a balance between a career and being a mom." In the film, Barack Obama noted how "kindhearted" her deceased father had been. Michelle and Barack cutely recalled their early days of courtship. (She resisted; he persisted.) Then her older brother came on stage and shared the facts that she woke him up early on Christmas mornings, played piano to calm him down before big games in high school, and memorized every episode of The Brady Bunch.
Next, Michelle delivered a speech in which she noted that her personal story--and that of her husband--shows "that the American dream endures." Noting how hard so many Americans work to provide for their kids, she said, "That is why I love this country."
She handled the speech well, and it was full of passages that seemed genuinely heartfelt. She also praised Senator Hillary Clinton for having put "those 18 million cracks in the glass ceiling," graciously using the disputed popular vote count promoted by the Clinton campaign during the primaries. But a question is, was all this I-love-my-family-and-country stuff necessary? The answer might be yes. Clearly, the Obama campaign was following recent political tradition: going Hallmark (or Lifetime) at the convention. ("I blame Ronald Reagan for this," lamented Salon's Walter Shapiro in the press section.) But in the case of the Obamas--due to their race, his unusual pedigree, and her comment about having not been proud of America (and the trashing she has received on right-wing talk radio)--it seemed that Team Obama had decided to lay it on awfully thick. The Obama campaign press release promoting her brother's speech noted he would "focus on values that shape her."
Political experts routinely maintain that voters' perceptions of politicians' values greatly influence how they vote. And that's probably especially true for those voters who pay less attention to the details of political races (such as the policy positions of the candidates) and who are, consequently, more driven by impressions. In other words, the undecided voters who decide elections. After the speech, Republican strategist Michael Murphy told me that he believed Michelle Obama had succeeded in "breaking down the wall" between her and some voters. But, he added, "I would have wanted more family talk in the speech and less candidate-y stuff about policies." But despite all the warmth she generated--and her speech was capped with a touching appearance of the two Obama daughters who spoke to their father through a video hookup--there was something demeaning about the whole exercise. At the Republican convention next week, will Cindy McCain have to prove she loves her kids and her country?
Today on Sean Hannity's radio show, Lanny Davis, who was one of Hillary Clinton's most prominent surrogates during the primaries, said:
You know, I would consider voting for McCain on character and on the kind of human being he is because I have great--I know him--I have great admiration for him. I would sleep well at night if John McCain is President. But on the issues, Barack Obama is for the issues that I care about.
That, as they might say at Obama HQ, is not helpful. If Hillary Hold-ons pose a problem for Barack Obama (as I noted earlier), then the key placers in Hillaryland have to do all they can to encourage these voters to put aside any resentment and swing behind Obama. Cynical political observers--and perhaps not-so-cynical observers--can wonder if Davis' remarks reflect a reluctance within the inner Clinton circle to do that and a desire to keep the anti-Obama pot boiling.
For over two decades, Democrats planning their party's presidential conventions have faced a dilemma: what to do with Jimmy Carter? After losing his reelection bid to Ronald Reagan in 1980, Carter was not the most popular fellow around. In the following years, the party wasn't eager to remind voters that Carter had once been its leaders. In recent years, Carter, while engaged in multiple humanitarian efforts at home and abroad, has sparked controversy with his candid talk about Middle East matters.
This time around, the convention planners devised a smart and appropriate way to use and acknowledge--and pay tribute--to one of the best ex-presidents in U.S. history. They showed a film in which Carter, labeled both president and humanitarian, interviewed victims of Hurricane Katrina in their still-devastated New Orleans neighborhoods. Carter also narrated the film, noting that Katrina "sent a signal around the world that our own government couldn't take care of own people." He noted that what has happened--and not happened--in New Orleans is similar to what he has seen in the poorest regions of the world. "We have been forgotten," one New Orleans resident told him, as he nodded sympathetically. That sympathy was obviously genuine. And Carter took the obvious jab at George W. Bush, noting that Barack Obama, if elected, will make sure that such an inadequate government response never happens again.
Once the film ended, Carter hit the stage, with his wife, Rosalynn. The thousands of Democratic delegates cheered loudly for them. He said nothing. He waved. He left. It was well done--and a reminder that this ex-president has been more effective than the current one.
Former Congressman Harold Ford Jr., the chairman of the Democratic Leadership Council, was standing outside a Walgreen's on 16th Street in downtown Denver yesterday. It was a beautiful afternoon, and scores of his fellow Democrats who had arrived for their party's conventions were strolling up and down the 16th Street Mall, past high-end chain stores and restaurants. It felt like something of a block party. Ford, an African-American who lost a 2006 Senate bid after his foes ran an ad featuring a young white woman noting that Ford had attended a Playboy mansion party and asking him for a date, joyously greeted members of Congress, political operatives, and reporters who happened to pass by. But he did have a worry. A worry regarding Hillary Clinton. Not the Senator herself. But her die-hard supporters. Ford said that he feared that Clinton supporters who had come to Denver to demand Clinton receive the party's presidential nomination--and who were planning demonstrations and events during the week--could cause trouble.
Two blocks away, two of those Clinton supporters were hoping--and planning--exactly for that. Nancy Kirlen, a middle-aged woman from San Diego, and Kathy Skerl, also middle-aged and from Asheville, North Carolina, stood at the entrance to the Sheraton Hotel, where media credentials were being distributed, and enthusiastically told reporters of their intentions to derail the convention.
With Senator Barack Obama recognized by the vast majority of Democrats as the presumptive nominee, with Senator Joe Biden tapped as his running-mate, with no major debates under way about the party platform, the convention appears to be short on news, suspense and conflict. With the exception of one possible plot-line: the revenge of the Hillaryites. Reporters looking for a story have focused on the possible clash between this band of activists and the party.
Their goal--to get Clinton nominated by persuading superdelegates to ditch Obama for her--is certainly far-fetched. The question is, can they create enough sound and fury--amplified or not by the mainstream media--to make it appear that there is significant dissension within the ranks? Outside the Sheraton, Kirlen said she expected thousands of Hillary-backers to take to Denver's streets for a Tuesday march. Skerl lowered expectations, saying the crowd might number in the hundreds. In addition to the march, several other rallies for Hillary are planned before the roll call vote at the Pepsi Center on Wednesday night.
In the end, Barack Obama used unconventional means to announce a conventional choice for his running-mate.
Via a three A.M. text message sent to the cell phones of his supporters, donors and volunteers, Obama's campaign declared that he had chosen Senator Joe Biden, the Delaware Democrat, to be "our" veep nominee. (Three in the morning--was this a dig at Senator Hillary Clinton or just a coincidence?) With this I'll-let-you-know-first gimmick, Obama had snagged millions of cell numbers and email addresses his campaign can use in the weeks ahead to motivate voters and push them to the polls on Election Day. So in purely tactical terms, his running-mate rollout was indeed pioneering and widely successful. What remains to be seen, of course, is whether he made a smart pick by attaching his campaign for change to a fellow who has worked Washington's ways in the Senate for 35 years.
Sometimes going conventional is not the wrong course. During the past weeks of veep-frenzy, Biden's assets and liabilities have been dissected repeatedly. He possesses extensive foreign policy experience (which Obama does not). He can do straight-talk relatively well for a senator (while Obama has been accused of not fully connecting with working-class voters). Then again, Biden has suffered in the past from both verbal diarrhea and gaffe-itis. I've attended many committee hearings in the Senate when Biden turned a question into a long-winded monologue that drove people in the room to want to shout, "Question, Senator, do you have a question?!!" And there are times when Biden's mental filter has switched off and he has said the dumbest thing, such as when he famously called Obama "the first mainstream African American who is articulate and bright and clean and a nice-looking guy." (The Daily Mail headlined its account of Obama's pick this way: "Obama names 'gaffe-prone' Joe Biden as his running mate.")
But Biden is a smart legislator who has shown that he can suppress his own faults when he must. He had a good campaign this past year as a presidential candidate. He won few votes but performed well at the debates and demonstrated he could keep his infamous verbosity under control. At the confirmation hearing for Supreme Court Chief Justice John Roberts, while other Democrats got bogged down in legal jargon practically indecipherable to the average person, Biden peppered Roberts with straightforward questions about Roberts' claim that he merely wanted to be an umpire on the bench who calls constitutional balls and strikes. "Much as I respect your metaphor," Biden countered, "it's not very apt, because you get to determine the strike zone. The founders never set a strike zone." It was the best moment of the hearing.