Will the Clintons Behave?
Aug 25, 2008 | 02:23 PM
DENVER--I attended my first convention in 1964 in Atlantic City, as a college Young Democrat, when my thrill was smuggling gallery passes to Mississippi Freedom Democrats who were challenging the official all-white Mississippi delegation. The nominee, of course, was never in doubt, since Lyndon Johnson was the incumbent president. Johnson had just delivered the landmark 1964 Civil Rights Act, and the demonstrations were an acute embarrassment to him. In the end, two of the Freedom delegation were offered token non-voting seats, a compromise that satisfied no one. Civil rights leader Fannie Lou Hamer, a sharecropper on the plantation of Mississippi Congressman Jamie Whitten, declared, "We didn't come all this way for no two seats, 'cause all of us is tired.'"
Forty-four years later, the Democratic nominee is a black man. A random sampling of delegates arriving in Denver suggests that the mood is nervously hopeful. There is broad anxiety about why Obama is not doing better, given the favorable external circumstances. However, the selection of Joe Biden as running mate played even better than expected. The running joke is that the white guy is going to give the black guy some soul, as well as some street-toughness that Obama has lacked.
For most delegates, VIPs, and even most of the media, a modern political convention is not about the events on the podium or the formerly smoke-filled rooms where deals are cut. The action is in the hotel bars, the receptions, the dozens of daytime and after-hours events where you can connect with old chums, talk politics, and pursue free food and drink. To the extent that the nominee does his job of keeping secrets and keeping tight control, there is not much hard news to be had, and everybody shares opinions and rumors.
Convention veterans are inclined to complain that it's not like the old days, when conventions were about the serious business of picking a nominee. The last Democratic convention where the winner, John Kennedy, was not entirely secure was in 1960. He did not clinch the nomination until Wyoming declared its support at the very end of the alphabetical roll call of states. As recently as 1972, George McGovern prevailed only because his forces won a very tricky rules--and--credentials fight. But in the conventions since then, everything has been known long before the delegates vote.
In 2008, if a couple of states and a few dozen super-delegates had gone the other way, this convention could have been like those events of yore--nail-biting cliffhangers, where serious politicking was done, right down to the wire. On the surface, it bears more resemblance to the typical conventions of the past three decades--increasingly made-for-TV affairs, with endless speeches to assure that every faction, every region and every interest group is heard--to the point where even TV no longer covers most of it, because there is no real story.
Instead, the press looks hard for things that might go wrong--that would be a story. And this convention could produce some surprises after all.
The big question on everyone's mind is what the Clintons will do. Hillary will be a headliner Tuesday, and Bill speaks Wednesday. So the middle two days of this convention will be Clinton time. Obama not only acceded to the Clintons' demands for a full roll call on Wednesday, which is supposed to be merely symbolic. At the Sunday meeting of the credentials committee, Obama sent word that he wanted both the entire Michigan and Florida delegations seated, with full voting rights, as a unity gesture. This came as a surprise even to some of Obama's own delegates on the committee, which unanimously approved. "I hope they know to count," said one. In exchange for these courtesies, Hillary has promised to release her delegates.
However, there are some signs that the Obama campaign's efforts to appease the Clintons are only whetting appetites. At Sunday morning's memorial panel discussion for longtime Meet The Press interrogator Tim Russert, panelist Ed Rendell, the Pennsylvania governor and Clinton surrogate, shocked many in the audience by railing against the media's supposed bias against Hillary Clinton--at a time when the storyline is supposed to be party unity. "What about the media and John McCain?" asks Amy Isaacs, executive director of Americans for Democratic Action.
Other Hillary people like James Carville remain publicly grumpy, and the other day Hillary herself referred to Obama as "my opponent." An Obama supporter reports this airport encounter with a Clinton supporter:
Obama man: Oh, there's an Obama button on the floor.
The truly paranoid imagine a last-ditch effort to pull a fast one and nominate Hillary. The more soberly anxious worry that if the Clintons or even many of their supporters go off-message, Obama will appear to be a nominee not quite in control of his own convention. That in turn would send unfortunate signals both about his party's unity and his own strength as a leader.
You can find plenty of Hillary delegates who say they will support the ticket with enthusiasm -- and plenty of others who are emphatically still not "over it." So there will be a lot of nail-biting after all, at least until Wednesday night, and perhaps beyond.
With not much else to cover, this is likely to become the story. Too many leading Clinton supports seem to go out of their way to express reservations of their party's nominee. Sean Wilentz, in a Newsweek piece just out (and helpfully circulated by Sid Blumenthal), writes:
"As a lifelong Democrat who supported Sen. Hillary Rodham Clinton during the primaries, I would like to see [Obama] succeed in fulfilling his promise."
But, Wilentz goes on to compare Obama to Jimmy Carter, and closes by terming him "the most unformed candidate in the modern history of presidential politics." Quite a message for a leading Clinton supporter to send during the Democratic Convention.
And of the several people that I interviewed in both camps, nobody believes that anyone really knows whether Bill Clinton will behave himself until we hear what comes out of his mouth--least of all Clinton himself. The media will pounce on the slightest sign of faint praise for Obama or excessive effusion for Hillary.
Ordinarily, Obama should expect a big bounce out of this convention. If the enthusiasm of his supporters and the excitement of the convention, coupled with the fresh energy of Joe Biden, does not help the nominee get his groove back, it is hard to imagine what will. However, Obama's big moment Thursday night will be hemmed in on both ends, bracketed by the Clintons' Tuesday and Wednesday nights as prologue, and by the Republican Convention coming right afterwards.
Still, Obama has often surprised the skeptics with his resilience, turning the potentially disastrous Rev. Jeremiah Wright episode into an eloquent teaching moment on race relations, and defying the skeptics with a largely triumphal trip to Iraq and Europe. If the Clintons don't rain on his parade, his big speech Thursday night should cap an upbeat week. But that open question lends drama to an otherwise thoroughly staged convention--and it is drama that Obama and the Democrats don't need.