Politics & Policy

Convention Rapid Response Team

Boston, Day One

Dan Casey

Okay, true confessions up front. I am constitutionally incapable of watching four to five straight hours of speeches and interviews–by or of any or all political creatures. Between the major speeches tonight I jumped back and forth to Stargate SG-1 reruns. But I digress.

Bill Clinton lives up to his reputation. Very well-crafted speech–very well delivered. He made a better case for Kerry than Kerry has made. Upbeat while framing the issues. Not a false note in it.

Tonight was rally-the-base night. Clinton may have managed to go beyond that–at least among the multitude who are not inveterate Clinton haters.

It was not a red-meat night, however. President Bush was barely mentioned by name. Former Vice President Gore started and closed talking about Florida. In between, a direct appeal to Nader voters not to screw-up Democrat prospects again. “Every vote counts.” (Quick, someone call Bartlett’s.)

The highlight of the Gore speech for me was, alas, a slip of the tongue. While praising the senatorial accomplishments of nominee-to-be Kerry (this was a very short segment), Gore credited him with “exposing the threat of eco-terrorism.” No, he quickly corrected himself–”narco-terrorism” was the threat that Senator Kerry had exposed. (This correction snuffed out the flickering hope I had nurtured earlier in his speech when Gore referred to a “global climate crisis”–rather than a “global warming crisis.”)

All in all, a credible but uninspiring speech that probably made it over the low bar the Kerry campaign had set: nothing memorable, nothing embarrassing.

The only nasty notes of the evening were those of former President Carter. We now know what it takes for the Democratic party to allow him to show his face at a national convention: He must be willing to repeatedly imply that the president of the United States is a liar. Well, okay, maybe he believes it.

But having your foreign policy criticized by Jimmy Carter is probably a blow the Bush campaign can survive.

Dan Casey is a public affairs consultant and Republican strategist.

Barbara Comstock

The Democratic watchwords are supposed to be strength and positive–no attacks. But in the lead in to DNC convention, Kerry gave a weak pitch at Fenway; a disheveled and distraught Teresa told a reporter to “shove it;” and Kerry, complete in a hooded space suit, gave us a Dukakis in the tank moment at Cape Canaveral.

Then the convention began with two bitter presidential losers who endorsed Howard Dean advocating a weak foreign policy and an old Teresa Heinz story was unearthed, in which she called liberal icon Ted Kennedy, “a perfect bastard.”

Not a particularly on-message beginning. Where are the Hollywood producers who usually are scripting these things?

Gore and Carter were odd choices to kick things off given that they both endorsed Dean and a weak foreign policy full of negative attacks on the president and even Kerry. Are we to believe that America would have been stronger and more positive if these two losers were elected president in 1980 and 2000? Would we feel better if Al Gore had been president on 9/11? Can you really even find a majority of Democrats who feel that way?

But leave it to the Clintons to save the day and night…for the Clintons. They both gave speeches that will get good press play and will serve Hillary well…in 2008.

Hillary began by claiming she was “practically speechless”–a subtle dig at those who would have denied her this moment at the convention? But in her yellow pant suit–Hillary put forward her agenda for the Democratic party (of course, leaving out that part of about having to “take things” from you for the “common good” that she outlined in a recent speech in San Francisco) and went well beyond her supposed five minutes. And Bill went on and on about how much he hates being rich, given all the little people who he’s robbing to live in Chappaqua and his Georgetown mansion. (Nobody’s stopping you from giving all your ill-gotten scandal recounting profits away pal…)

Sure they both did their earnest, heartfelt, lip-biting best to give the impression that they were doing this all for that “strong” Kerry/Edwards team–and nobody can fake it better–but at the end of the night, the press, the pundits and the delegates are talking about the strength of the Clinton brand–not Kerry and Edwards.

Barbara Comstock is a former Department of Justice spokeswoman and currently a principal with Blank Rome Government Relations.

John McLaughlin

Monday was Bill Clinton’s night, during which he rallied his base with style, and led the Democrats’ issue charge for the center. And who better to do it: Clinton’s political strategy was “triangulation,” in which he ignored the liberal liabilities of the Democratic party and use issues like “middle-class tax cuts” and welfare reform to blur the Republicans’ ideological advantage.

After 9/11, however, there were once again clear ideological differences between the parties. We are now in an era of polarized politics, and while the two parties are evenly matched in the electorate, conservatives hold a 3-to-2 ideological advantage. The Republicans used this to their benefit in the midterm elections, which they won by maximizing their base and wooing the center by being stronger on terror, and better on the economy (by cutting taxes). Now the Democrats must win back the center–while keeping their solid anti-Bush base.

Our July 15 national poll–which gave President Bush a 1-point lead–shows that outside of the mere 6 percent of the vote that was currently undecided, the battle is now for the middle, where independents give Kerry a slim 43-41 edge, and among moderates, where Kerry leads 55-38.

Kerry’s Democratic strategists seem to grasp the political opportunity the Bush-Cheney campaign is giving them–and they are ready to exploit it to win.

First they trotted out Jimmy Carter, who, after failing to stand up to radical Islamic terrorists, ironically portrayed Republicans as extremist and radical.

Then there was Al Gore–the man who never really wanted to concede–opining that the country was more united today than four years ago.

This teed it up for Bill Clinton to push the Republicans to the “extreme” right and drive home moderate, character-centered values for John Kerry. How ironic was it to hear the working-class, baby-boom president who dodged the draft now praising Kerry for ignoring privilege and serving in Vietnam?

In doing so, however, President Clinton cleverly delivered a powerful message. He wove an issue agenda into the character of the Democratic party and its nominee. He defined the terms for challenging President Bush and the Republicans for the middle.

The Democratic base is united, pushing forward to win the center. But now they have given Republicans the chance to respond. And respond they should: by entering the contest eagerly, and promptly.

John McLaughlin is a Republican strategist and pollster, a partner at McLaughlin and Associates.

Peter Robinson

An odd evening. It may just have been me–in politics, of course, it is impossible to filter out the subjective–but neither Clinton seemed somehow to do more than go through the motions. Hillary hit all the expected points, with particular emphasis on health care, but did nothing else. Her husband put on his usual display of animal vitality, pleasing the crowd with one attack on Bush after another, denouncing the incumbent for rolling back taxes, for cutting domestic programs, for acting unilaterally in Iraq (as if Clinton himself hadn’t had to slap the Europeans around before they finally got serious about Kosovo). But where, in either speech, was the sense of moment? This Republic is at war–as Thomas Kean said last week in presenting the report of the 9/11 commission, “Every expert with whom we spoke told us an attack of even greater magnitude is now possible, and even probable. Yet neither Hillary nor Bill ever seemed to connect.

Competent, and even, in Bill’s case, entertaining performances. But only performances.

Peter Robinson, a senior fellow at the Hoover Institution and host of Uncommon Knowledge, is author of How Ronald Reagan Changed My Life.

Larry Sabato

It is well worth remembering that in recent decades, almost nothing that occurs at a convention matters, except for the nominee’s concluding speech. Yes, riots at the Democratic Convention in 1968 and the severe internecine splits at the 1976 Republican Convention and the 1980 Democratic Convention did matter–but that is beside the point and irrelevant to the boring lovefest unfolding before us in Boston. Naturally, Bill Clinton fully lived up to his rock-star billing—that boy can give a speech!–and he outclassed not just wife Hillary but almost certainly John Kerry on Thursday. Yet it matters not a whit what Bill Clinton said, or Hillary Clinton, or Jimmy Carter, or any of the other ghosts from the past who are ever so briefly reappearing in Boston.

Speaking of Hillary, though, an incident earlier in the day was far more revealing than her canned, flat podium remarks. In an interview with CNN Monday morning, Sen. Clinton expressed great glee that the Bush/Cheney administration was coming to an end (and judging by the evidence available in mid-July, she may be right). But she added an impolitic comment: “I only wish the inauguration could be moved up a few months.” Sounds like something the vast right-wing conspiracy might have dreamed up in 2000. Add this to Senator Clinton’s outburst to Newsweek: “The Republican Party does not believe in universal suffrage. They believe in and worship power.” True, the GOP appears to oppose the right of felons to vote, but so do most Americans. And senior Republican officeholders almost surely relish their power–much as Bill Clinton certainly did. The point here is that a politician who utters such over-the-top statements is very unlikely ever to win the presidency. It really has been a good month for John Edwards.

Speaking of First Ladies, another totally unexpected media moment came when Teresa Heinz approached a reporter who had written an article not to the First Lady-in-waiting’s liking. In no uncertain terms she dressed the reporter down. (In the same CNN interview alluded to earlier, Sen. Clinton said: “You go girl!”) Mrs. Heinz Kerry needs to develop an enormously thicker skin if she is to survive four or eight years in the White House. Can anyone imagine Laura Bush doing the same thing? Alas, for the Republicans, First Ladies have little influence on the presidential vote. Barbara Bush was far more popular than Hillary Clinton in 1992, and it made no difference; neither could Betty Ford help Gerald Ford in 1976. If vice presidents produce few votes, then first ladies produce none. But as a glimpse of a possible Christmas future, it is well worth noting.

Larry Sabato is professor of politics and director of the Center for Politics at the University of Virginia. He is editor of the just released GET IN THE BOOTH! A Citizen’s Guide to the 2004 Election.

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