Inside Washington's Headlines

by Ken Feltman

Radnor Inc.

September 2008

 

Legislative insight

Political intelligence

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Ken Feltman is Chairman of Radnor Inc., a political consulting and legislative relations firm in Washington, D.C. He is past-president of the International Association of Political Consultants and the American League of Lobbyists.

 

 

 

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Denver: Mile high anxiety

Shirley Temple had charisma as a child. But it cleared up as an adult.

- Totie Fields

Wednesday, August 27 - The Democrats who gathered in Denver did not trust each other. The Clinton camp was convinced that Hillary Clinton would be a stronger candidate in November. The Obama supporters were having doubts about their candidate. He was simply, well, too mushy.

Occasionally, the mistrust boiled over into hatred: Nobama buttons seemed to become more numerous as the week went on. Some Obama backers suggested that the Clinton team was coordinating and inciting what some called the "revenge of the angry women." The mood got nasty. The party elders went around saying everyone was coming together.

Just about that time, an Obama supporter would accuse someone - often former President Clinton - of undercutting Obama or even of racism. The cycle of recriminations would repeat. The two sides would get their punches in and, like wary boxers, would glare at each other across the room. Was that what the elders meant by coming together? At least they were in the same room.

Every convention has loads of consultants, pollsters and officials from the other party in attendance. At first, the Republicans in Denver seemed not to believe what they were observing. Then, they proceeded quickly through a period of cautiousness to giddiness, much of it alcohol induced.

Perhaps their own convention in St. Paul will be sobering.

Reporters and the assembled pundits kept contrasting the tension in Denver with their expectation of a well managed, happy and triumphal coronation. The media have been flooded with predictions that this convention will mark the end of the Clinton era and the beginning of an Obama administration that will be marked by social progress at home, the end of foreign entanglements, a lessening of estrangement between the United States and her allies abroad, with all of this led by a younger generation with its "feel good" optimism triumphant and pervasive.

The Clintons are not going away

That is not to be. Instead, the reality is that the Clinton team stared down Obama (not his team) and Obama blinked. That blink convinced many in both camps that Obama was too weak to win the election. Hillary got top billing on the second night of the convention and President Clinton was expected to upstage Senator Joe Biden on Wednesday. The Clintons would have stolen the first night, too, except for the appearance of Senator Ted Kennedy. Sometimes there is a perfect role for old war horses. Kennedy played the part brilliantly. But he, like most everybody on Monday, forgot to take a few shots at John McCain. So busy were these assembled Democrats with trying to land subtle punches on other Democrats that they ignored their opponent.

Many reporters were reduced to saying that the Obama children are adorable. They are. Others said that Michelle Obama did a good job in her come-back speech. She did. Then Barack Obama appeared on a huge screen and said he was in St. Louis. He was not. He was in Kansas City, on the other side of Missouri.

McCain can't count houses. Obama can't remember where he is. I once had a candidate who had the same affliction. He mentioned three cities within the first two minutes of his remarks one evening. Another time he simply asked the crowd: "Where am I?" We got little stickers and put them all over the podium and the microphone. He couldn't miss them, or so we thought. Soon, he blew the name of a city and after the speech said: "I thought maybe you got the stickers wrong so I just guessed."

It's a lifelong problem, apparently without a cure. If Obama is elected, his staff will hold its collective breath every time Obama begins a speech with "I'm happy to be here in...."

Tired of Obama the celebrity?

But the groans from the Missouri delegation got delegates from other states joining in. Is it possible that Obama has so little margin for error with these Democratic activists that mixing up two Missouri cities can make a difference? Is this a sign of buyers' remorse? We may find out. The impression left with me is that many delegates want Obama to stop being a celebrity, swooping in to make grand speeches with Hollywood staging, and start being a candidate who fills in the blanks. But they wonder if he can.

This uncertain mood hovered over the convention. It preoccupied people. I have always observed that the Democrats have a lot more fun at their conventions than the Republicans. Democrats seldom get hung up over obscure platform provisions. They never second-guess their choice. Democrats move ahead and do not let the bitterness of the primaries linger. They put it all behind, have a good time and get ready to push for their candidate in November. Till now.

Now they are fighting two battles. Some are fighting for Obama's election in November. All are in a battle for control of the party. And you know what? Few Democratic delegates and their guests in Denver would bet on Obama in that struggle.

Democrats expect gains in the House and Senate

Even the euphoria many Republican professionals felt as they realized the unsureness and division among the Democrats in Denver did not translate into optimism for House and Senate races. The Democrats seen sure to enlarge their margins in both houses.

One bit of gallows humor was a suggestion by a GOP consultant. He wants a TV spot calling attention to the probable lopsided Democratic control of the House and Senate. Then voters, who seem to prefer divided government, would be more likely to vote for McCain. He smiled as he said it.

A second Republican said he had already thought of that. So did a third. Then they debated whether it was necessary to remind voters of the likely overwhelming Democratic majorities on Capitol Hill. Then they spotted some Democratic friends and everyone had a drink.

Never mind that Hillary Clinton gave Obama a soaring endorsement when she spoke Tuesday night. Never mind that she told her delegates to work hard for Obama. The infighting over the past few months seems to have worn down Obama and he gave up huge blocks of prime television time to Clintonistas. Beside, Hillary was positively radiant and rested as she took command of the podium. She was everywoman, formidable, in charge, ready. She has solidified her base. It is Obama who now needs her help if he is to prevail.

What was Hillary's base saying after her speech? Here are a few typical comments: "Didn't she look wonderful?" "She had to say that." "This just proves who's the better candidate." "She didn't mean it." "I'm still undecided." "Maybe McCain." "I'm ready for Hillary in 2012." "Obama is so weak." "He's inexperienced."

Truly, the Republicans could not say it better. In the days right after Obama picked Senator Joe Biden for vice president, several daily tracking polls showed McCain catching and even passing Obama. Delegates in Denver were disappointed with the choice: "What state does he bring?" "Old and long winded." "He'll be the attack dog, I guess." "Why not Hillary?" So much for the usual VP bounce. A couple of Democratic pollsters wondered in Denver if Obama has hit his high water mark.

Still undefined?

Thursday, August 28 - Two things are clear: Obama has yet to prove that he won't be pushed around and the Democrats in Denver are surprisingly divided. Perhaps the rank-and-file Democratic voters across the country are coalescing around Obama. But a goodly number of convention delegates and party leaders are not. Most are women or men who have never stopped being loyal Clintonistas.

President Clinton gave a vintage Bill Clinton speech and Senator Biden was better than the delegates expected. He did not get upstaged by Clinton. But the mood was more like that found at Republican conventions. These are not Democrats who are ready to storm the precincts for Obama. There are more of them, and many are young and eager, but beneath that enthusiastic show that the television cameras pick up, a quiet concern troubles them. Sort of like the condemned man ordering his last meal: It would be great to get everything you want except for one thing.

Friday, August 29 - The staging for Obama's speech was more Las Vegas than election reality. They even had fireworks. The delegates and guests loved it. So did the media. But, somehow, the speech was like a meal that leaves you hungry. The delegates noticed and talked about it. They hoped the reporters did not notice. They hoped the milions of TV viewers would not notice. Did they?

A delegate who has attended many Democratic conventions may have summed up the mood: "We have a nominee who may not be able to attract more than 48 or 49 percent of the national vote. So we are wondering whether we should have picked the other candidate, who is hated by over 50 percent of the country but loved by a very vocal 49 percent of the Democratic party and won't give up. So here we are with another tough fight."

Those catching early flights looked exhausted as they trudged through Denver's huge airport. The Democrats looked tired. Few smiled. The Republicans were the one who were smiling and humming.

 

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