Wow. Our experiment is off to a great start—let's see if we can finish it off sooner than expected.
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?