Finally, on the third night of their national convention, Democrats Wednesday began to concentrate on the economic issues that will be their greatest strength in the upcoming campaign. Sen. Joe Biden of Delaware, their vice presidential nominee, did it effectively in his prime-time acceptance speech.
Sen. Barack Obama, the presidential nominee, will address a huge stadium crowd Thursday night. That will launch the Obama-Biden ticket on a fall campaign that promises to be hard fought and, perhaps, another election-night nail biter.
Reactions to Wednesday in Denver:
Biden was successfully introduced to the watching TV audience in a film biography and, then, in a highly effective, on-the-offensive speech — the kind usually assigned to vice-presidential candidates — which not only directly appealed on economic issues to the hard-pressed Reagan Democrats and up-for-grabs voters who will make the difference in this election, but also, for the first time, took on Sen. John McCain, point by point, on foreign policy issues. After making the obligatory bow to McCain's patriotism and service, Biden let him have it straight on. I thought Biden's speech pursued economic themes that other speakers should previously have pursued. It is economic issues, and the middle-American constituency responsive to them, that will offer Democrats the best chance to win this fall.
Although former President Bill Clinton's speech, earlier in the evening, was highly praised by pundits, I was disappointed by it. He gave a soup-to-nuts partisan speech which underscored his, as well as Sen. Hillary Clinton's, support of Obama-Biden. But I expected a two-term president to present something more thoughtful and statesmanlike — perhaps an examination of political history leading up to Obama's ground-breaking nomination and references to Democratic presidencies and their achievements. Where were Roosevelt, Truman, JFK, the Great Society, and historic breakthroughs? Instances of past international and domestic leadership. Strangely absent.
The speech seemed to begin with the Clinton presidency and end with Obama's nomination. Clinton closed on an odd note, saying that he was challenged in 1992, as an Arkansas governor, as being unprepared to handle foreign-policy issues in the White House, just as Obama was being challenged now. Clinton had proved them wrong, just as Obama would. (Trouble is, Clinton's first presidential year was marked by questionable foreign policy decisions and stumbles, including those in Somalia and Haiti. Clinton was unprepared but, in year two, began to get it.)
As they had throughout the convention, Democratic speakers bore down on their devotion to Iraq and other military veterans. A Spielberg film, narrated by Tom Hanks, paid tribute to wounded vets — the implication being that Democrats cared more about them than Republicans. A panel of Iraq vets told in primetime why they were supporting Obama. This seemed a curiously oblique response to polling data showing McCain and Republicans to be more trusted on national security/foreign policy issues than Obama and Democrats.
Caring about and honoring vets is not about to convince swing voters that Democrats would handle dangerous war-peace issues more effectively than Republicans.
All speakers during the day continued to argue that four years of McCain would be a straight-line continuation of the eight Bush years. Democrats spent two decades arguing that any Republican president would be another Herbert Hoover, and at times it worked. But McCain has been a maverick and at times at odds with Bush. I am not sure this line of argument will be convincing. Far better, it seems to me, to compare Obama-McCain positions on a wide range of specific foreign and domestic issues. Biden did this quite effectively. Voters are watching closely this year and looking for specifics and real information.
If you watched the entire day's proceedings on C-SPAN rather than the truncated, interrupted versions on the networks and cable-news outlets, you had to be impressed by the degree to which the Democratic Party continues to be the party of minorities, teacher- and public-employee union members, and advocates of women's issues. The faces on the podium disproportionately represented those constituencies. By the same token, the messages delivered by those faces have changed from those in past years. Angry expressions of grievance and/or calls for narrow agendas have been replaced in large part by testimonials about the virtues of hard work, personal responsibility, and resilience. The overall message: The American Dream is within reach, if you pursue it as Obama and Biden have. A smart and appropriate shift.
The Clintons did a professional and credible job of vowing their support to the Obama-Biden ticket. They helped their party and themselves. Now Obama, Biden, and the party can move them off the podium and focus on the future. The Thursday night stadium spectacular should give the nominees a ringing, cheering televised sendoff.
Sen. John McCain will announce his running mate Friday, in advance of next week's Republican convention in St. Paul, Minn. If the Democratic convention influenced his decision, it likely moved him in the direction of former Massachusetts Gov. Mitt Romney, his party's most credible spokesman on economic/financial issues. McCain does not handle these issues easily. He will need someone to answer what surely will be the main Democratic line of attack.
As a lifelong Democrat, and an Obama supporter since 2007, I have gotten an upward jolt from the convention and look forward eagerly to Obama's speech Thursday night. At the same time, I recognize that neither I nor others like me will decide the outcome of the 2008 election. It will be decided by on-the-fence, often independent, not intensely political voters who are only now beginning to pay close attention to the campaigns. All kinds of unforeseen domestic and international events could change the political climate between now and November. My gut feeling continues to be that Obama-Biden will win a close election. But gut feelings must be discounted. Stay tuned.