Politics & Policy

Sharp, Well-Delivered, and Yet No Help At All

Are the convention speeches really helping Obama?

While they often overlap, there’s a difference between a speech that is good and a speech that is helpful to the nominee. This year’s Democratic Convention may generating more of the former than the later.

James Carville lamented on CNN after the first night, “If this party has a message, it’s done a hell of a job hiding it tonight, I promise you that.” Perhaps the first night didn’t need to cover that much ground; there was no way the Democrats could skip the convention tribute to Senator Ted Kennedy. And going into the convention, the sometimes gloomy and dour rhetoric coming from Michelle Obama was thought to be a lingering problem for the campaign. She gave a sterling address, so brimming with salutes to the country and traditional values that Washington Post columnist Richard Cohen compared her to Betty Crocker.

A day later, there was no improvement in the tracking polls; in fact, Obama dropped a point. Clearly, Michelle singing the country’s praises wasn’t going to be sufficient to generate a bump.

Tuesday night’s Hillary Clinton address had the fire marshals contemplating closing the doors, finally concluding they had reached capacity and would only permit delegates and media to enter as someone departed the Pepsi Center. Expectations were as high as the delegates in the nosebleed seats, as everyone wondered if Hillary could bring herself to give a full-throated endorsement, and win over her supporters who are flirting with McCain.

A speech that mentioned Obama twelve times and vigorously endorsed him would seem to do Obama some good, but the sense from Hillary backers was that on Tuesday night, she opened the door to unification, but that Obama had to walk through it.

Bringing over the disgruntled Hillary voters “has nothing to do with Bill and Hillary Clinton,” said longtime Clinton friend Terry McAuliffe Wednesday morning. “Barack Obama has to do this himself. I’m sick of hearing that this is the Clintons’ fault.”

Similarly, there’s only so much other speakers can do. In the end, surrogates and testimonials can only do so much; Obama has to close the deal with wavering voters himself.

According to a focus group conducted by pollster Frank Luntz, Obama’s problem is partially that the remaining undecided voters are getting a little tired of talk of the constant invoking of the watchwords “hope” and “change.”

If Obama reverts to the lofty and ethereal language about his election being the moment that the sea levels receded and the sick were healed — the kind of talk Hillary mocked as celestial choirs singing — then these undecided voters may throw heavy objects at their television.

One of Luntz’s focus group members lamented the lack of substance behind the “charismatic talk,” and found much agreement from the rest of the group. Another said he was tired of “oratory” and another said “it’s not about change.”

Luntz was blunter in assessing Obama’s flaws, urging both candidates to “cut through the crap” and describing a scenario where Obama comes across as “the beautiful politician who has the words but not the solutions,” and voters turn away.

Yet it’s hard to picture Obama giving a State of the Unionstyle laundry list address, brimming with policy proposals and nitty-gritty details of how he’ll pay for all his proposals. Inexperience is a tough criticism to overcome, as it can only be refuted by additional experience.

Democrats cheered at the more aggressive tone on Tuesday night, but the obsessive-compulsive labeling of John McCain as “four more years of the last eight years” only tells the voters watching at home what they already know — they don’t like President Bush. It doesn’t do enough to say, “here’s why Obama will be better.”

The putrid approval rating of Congress suggests that so far, voters are less than thrilled with the Democrats’ agenda and leadership, at least in the hands of Nancy Pelosi and Harry Reid. Delegates may have been thrilled with the jabs at McCain from Montana Gov. Brian Schweitzer; undecided voters at home may have wondered why the podium had been hijacked by an aspiring comedian in a bolo tie.

The impact of conventions can look different once the confetti starts getting swept away. In 2004, most observers thought the Democrats had a pretty successful convention, with the exception of the nominee’s hammy, “I’m John Kerry, and I’m reporting for duty” line delivered with a caricatured salute. Four years later, the only two things anyone remembers from that convention are Obama’s keynote address and that salute.

– Jim Geraghty writes the “Campaign Spot” blog on NRO.

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