BOSTON — This is one upbeat convention, but at the point at which I came in, it was getting off to a near-funereal start. The occasion was the AFL-CIO’s Sunday convention-eve caucus of labor delegates — there are roughly 900 union members among the 5,000-plus delegates here — and it began with an invocation from a local cleric who was plainly trying to allay fears that terrorists would strike and blow us all to kingdom come. And so Senior Elder Edbly Binoit started reciting the 23rd Psalm: “Yea, though I walk through the valley of the shadow of death, I shall fear no evil.” It was a tad somber for the rockin’-sockin’ rally that followed.
Politically, however, almost every Democratic convention I can recall has been a walk through the valley of the shadow. With the single exception of Bill Clinton’s 1996 re-election convention in Chicago, these national Democratic conclaves have always been fraught with peril. Did the convention energize the base? Woo the uncommitteds? Avoid alienating potential supporters who were primed to come over but for that one false note?
So far, the Democrats seem to have hit all their marks. In particular, Bill Clinton, abetted by other speakers, has invented a kind of universalistic populism that may just win over the only two real swing constituencies in current American politics: downscale working-class whites who are culturally conservative but economically populist, and upscale moderates who are socially liberal but who get a little queasy when Democrats play the class card. (I know, I know, Democrats haven’t really played the class card in years, but the Republicans ritualistically accuse them of doing so, and that has some effect with the upscale swings.)
During the primary season, John Edwards initiated a new wrinkle in populism with his Two Americas speech. Edwards’ two Americas weren’t the rich and the poor, or even the rich and everybody else. They were the connected insiders — characteristically, corporations rather than individuals — who received the benefits of Bush’s pathological favoritism to the rich, and everybody else.
Clinton took in Edwards’ innovations and burst forth Monday night with a neo-populism all his own. The villain in his tale wasn’t the rich — indeed, in a moment of Clintonian brilliance that underscored why he is the greatest single campaigner the Democrats have had in 60 years, Clinton chose himself as the paradigmatic wealthy beneficiary of Bush’s tax-cutting mania. “They chose to protect my tax cut,” Clinton said again and again, rather than bolster airport and harbor security, or keep 100,000 cops on the streets, or leave no child behind. This is populism: Bush’s indulgence of the rich endangers us all.
Clinton’s formulation was particularly inspired inasmuch as the Democrats need to position themselves as both the party of populism and the party of national unity in this year’s election. Bush’s constant commitment to governing from the right and for the rich has allowed John Kerry to commit himself to an ethos and policies of national unity, as his public flirtation with John McCain made abundantly clear. By reshaping a populism that focuses its ire not on the rich but on the president who gives them all or more than they’ve asked for, at the expense of every national need, Clinton has created an almost oxymoronic “ism” — national-unity populism. Roll over, Pitchfork Ben Tillman.
Kerry and Edwards, in the speeches they’ll deliver later in the convention, will surely take up some variant of this theme, though it’s doubtful they will do so as artfully as Clinton. At the late-night Monday parties following Clinton’s speech, the sentiment most commonly voiced was that it was a good thing that three full days would elapse between Clinton’s speech and Kerry’s. That Hot Springs boy is a hard act to follow.
The other theme running through this convention with all the subtlety of an armored division is Kerry’s credentials as commander in chief. Given that polling shows that nearly half the public knows little to nothing about Kerry (a figure that’s actually risen since the primary season, which doesn’t reflect very well on campaign news coverage, on Kerry’s campaign or on the candidate himself), the invocations of Kerry’s time in Nam are necessary. On Monday, at least, they weren’t unduly overdone; the question is whether we’ll all have swift-boat fatigue by the time the convention adjourns on Thursday night.
For whatever it’s worth, a number of 20th-century Democratic presidents — Roosevelt (who was the assistant secretary of the Navy during World War I), Kennedy, Carter — were Navy men, and Roosevelt’s 1932 campaign theme song was initially “Anchors Aweigh.” When the Democrats came to Chicago that summer for their convention, Roosevelt was still a couple of hundred votes short of the two-thirds support then required for the nomination, and the convention took four suspense-filled ballots before FDR went over the top. Temperatures were high and tempers were fraying, and Roosevelt’s chief strategist in Chicago, Louis Howe, noted that every time some Roosevelt reference came up on the podium or from the floor, the convention band would play “Anchors Aweigh.” Finally, Howe, who hated the song, could stand no more. “Tell them to play something else!” he snapped. Howe’s aide then asked him the inevitable follow-up: What? In a burst of inspiration the likes of which political managers and consultants strive for but almost never achieve, Howe said, “How about ‘Happy Days Are Here Again.’”
And thus the Democrats got the perfect theme song for a candidate pledging a New Deal during the pit of the worst depression the nation had ever known, a theme song so resonant that it remained the party’s anthem straight through the ’70s. As of now, the Democrats have gone through the first day of their convention without falling into the valley of the shadow, hitting all the right notes and, with Clinton’s speech, sounding the absolutely right theme. Whether they are crafting an anthem that will last them for decades depends on, among other things, performances from John Kerry and John Edwards that are yet to come.
Keynoter Barack Obama, after regaling the delegates with a suitably modest rendition of his remarkable life on Tuesday night, settled into what quickly became the second great speech of the convention, following Clinton’s Monday masterpiece. Like Clinton, Obama took Bush and his thugs to task for creating and exploiting an America of cultural and political stereotypes. Obama, who shatters stereotypes merely by walking into a room, would have none of it. “We coach Little League in the Blue States and have gay friends in the Red States,” he said.
But the speech that Obama’s keynote most called to mind was another keynote, way back in 1984. The speaker then had only recently been elected governor of New York, and Mario Cuomo, like Obama, viewed his own emergence on the national stage as a breakthrough for an ethnic group (in Cuomo’s case, of course, Italian-Americans) and thereby an expansion of a growing and indivisible American democracy. Cuomo, like Obama, talked about poor children in the inner city. Cuomo called for a new emphasis on national solidarity, as did Obama.
Obama told the tales of white workers around Chicago who are losing their jobs to outsourcing. What he didn’t say is that these workers live in what once were ferociously racist suburbs, but that his own uncanny ability to transcend racial constraints and become a tribune for these workers has won him their support, both in this spring’s senatorial primary and now in the polling that has made him the prohibitive favorite to win election to the Senate in November.
And Obama dared to go where more fair-weather liberals would stand back. “If there’s an Arab-American family being rounded up without benefit of an attorney or due process,” he declared, “that threatens my civil liberties.” The delegates, almost entirely liberals on good behavior through November, rose to their feet and roared. With Obama, liberals can be liberals and still not feel marginal.
Obama, with his compelling life story — son of a black Kenyan father and a white Kansan mother, the troubled kid who ended up the president of the Harvard Law Review, the gifted young attorney who eschewed a high-dollar practice for a life as a community organizer and academic lecturer, the liberal state legislator who persuaded the state’s district attorneys and his GOP legislative colleagues to require the videotaping of all police interrogations of suspects in capital crimes — has already become the personification of a tolerant, miscegenistic, liberal American future. Of all the Democrats speaking this week against Bush’s divisiveness and for a more unified nation, Obama presents, in both his argument and his person, the most compelling case.