When your first Democratic National Convention was 1968 in Chicago, it surely must be all uphill from there, but the Barack Obama convention of 2008 seemed to me the most accomplished and positive in the party’s recent history. Certainly it far surpassed those of 1968 through 1988, which I saw from the floor.
The performers — all of them, Clintons included — did what they needed to do to take a united party into a nine-weeks’ dogfight and to send the right messages (for them) to the viewing audience.
Barack Obama will get a bounce in the polls from this one, but that doesn’t ensure victory. I recall 1988, and the final night of Michael Dukakis’ nomination and delegates afloat in a sea of euphoria as the theme music of John Williams flowed over the crowd. “Coming to America” reminded so many of their immigrant forebears (although there were few Latinos in the crowd), and from the convention Dukakis got a big bounce and George H.W. Bush seemed on the ropes. We know how it turned out.
Obama is tougher than Dukakis, I think, and sharper on his feet. It shouldn’t matter, but a side-by-side view of Obama and John McCain will flatter the taller, younger man, as it did with Kennedy-Nixon. It is hard to imagine Obama flummoxed by the sort of hypothetical that decked Dukakis when he was asked if he would support the death penalty for someone who raped and killed his wife.
The first two Democratic conventions I covered — one for print, the second for television — were unmitigated disasters. The riots in Chicago in 1968 and chaos in Miami Beach in 1972 contrasted with scripted conventions for Richard Nixon, boring but efficient.
Democrats made a leap of faith, or desperation — take your pick — in 1984 with Geraldine Ferraro as the nominee for vice president, and I remember a convention charged with the symbolic breakthrough of a woman on the ticket. But it was a hopeless cause; it was morning in America.
The party has rolled the dice big-time in 2008, with an African American at the top of the ticket and, unlike 1984, these times favor a Democratic victory. The team that choreographed the primaries choreographed the convention flawlessly; at least that part of it that was viewed in primetime (which is most of what counts).
The convention left no soft spots for Republicans to exploit, and with Joe Biden the stakes for the Republican vice-presidential nominee are very high indeed. Even with a flawless convention of their own, the GOP will be forced to rely on two very dicey cards, racism and fear. The candidate cannot (and will not) play the race card, but anonymous operatives on the Internet can and will. The fear card can be played by the White House or by the minions of al Qaeda and terrorist wannabees who have the power to inject themselves into the campaign with a single attack. Events are the driver of last-month decisions.
In some ways, it was a too-perfect convention, leaving no major flanks exposed, and in the disillusioned climate of 2008 almost forcing the opposition to go to the dark side to prevail.
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