Beantown's Kings and Klutzes
By Richard S. Dunham
The political infomercial also known as the Democratic National Convention is now history, and thousands of partisans have dispersed from sea to shining sea, charged up for the fall campaign. They leave the cradle of the American Revolution, now home to the revolutionary concept of gay marriage, united in their mission to (in the words of a popular button in Boston) "Plant a Bush in Texas."
Some emerged from the blast in Beantown with enhanced reputations, while other politicos and groups have seen their images tarnished a bit. Here is one veteran convention-watchers view of the winners and losers at the Democratic National Convention:
Barack Obama. A couple of years ago, Barack Obama was a South Side Chicago pol and failed congressional candidate. Today, he's the toast of the Democratic Party, someone whose promise has some optimistic Democrats predicting that he will become the nation's first African American President. All this because Obama, the prohibitive frontrunner for an Illinois Senate seat, delivered a keynote address that will go down in history as one of the great convention speeches of all time. Liberal activists and New Democrat moderates alike are raving about it. Its notes of optimism, patriotism, and talk of personal responsibility could easily have been from an old Ronald Reagan script. The 42-year-old state senator best realize that fame can be fickle, and today's rising star can become tomorrow's flame-out. But Democrats who compared Obama's speech to those of William Jennings Bryan (1896), Ted Kennedy (1980), Mario Cuomo (1984), and Reagan (1980) see nothing but great things ahead for the man from Illinois.
Al Sharpton. A year ago he was a disgraced community activist running a hopeless and hapless Presidential campaign. But on July 28, he brought the convention to its feet with the most pointed denunciation of President Bush in a week of generally positive rhetoric. Sharpton coined perhaps the best attack line of the week: "I suggest to you tonight that if George Bush had selected the court in '54 [when Brown v. Board of Education was decided], Clarence Thomas would have never got [sic] to law school." Delegates as disparate as Idahoans and Mississippians rose to their feet and roared their approval. Who would have thought that Sharpton -- of Tawana Brawley infamy and campaign-finance controversies -- would have been the toast of the Democratic Establishment?
Wesley Clark. The retired general ran a mediocre Presidential campaign, but he delivered a ringing indictment of the Bush Administration's foreign policy during a July 29 convention speech. Clark outshined party diplomat heavyweights, including former Secretary of State Madeleine Albright and Senator Joe Biden. If the Presidential also-ran had been as effective an orator during his failed White House run, he might have been the person delivering the big speech on national TV -- not Kerry.
John Edwards. All year long, the North Carolina Senator has consistently been the best orator on the Presidential campaign trail. But until he delivered his July 28 speech to the convention, he had not been able to reach a large national audience. While it wasn't his finest oratorical effort of '04, the ringing ode to the politics of hope and optimism positioned him firmly as a political comer. Even before the speech, polls showed that independent voters, by about 2-to-1, prefer Edwards over Vice-President Cheney. The edge is likely to increase for now -- at least until Mr. Sweet and Mr. Sour face off this fall in a campaign debate.
The Clintons. Polls show that Bill and Hill are the most popular figures in the Democratic Party, even more than nominee Kerry. The New York Senator clocked in at 89% approval, according to a Gallup Poll, while Bill was a tick behind at 88%. The ex-President had the crowd roaring with a vintage performance on the first night of the convention, and his book-signing events had fans lined up around the block. Meanwhile, Hillary Rodham Clinton was a virtual rock star around Boston, drawing standing-room-only crowds wherever she went. Those candid photos of the New York senator and daughter Chelsea sharing champagne? It presented a human side rarely seen in public. Too bad they were toasting just as former House Democratic Leader Dick Gephardt was extolling his humble roots as the son of a milk-truck driver.
The Reagans. Over the years, pols and a long list of ex-officials have learned never to cross Nancy Reagan. Remember White House chief of staff Don Regan? Well, President Bush and his allies in the Republican congressional leadership are blocking legislation backed by Mrs. Reagan that would permit federal funding for stem-cell research. Breakthroughs in this field might have helped in the treatment of former President Ronald Reagan's Alzheimer's Disease.
It's safe to predict that Bush & Co. will pay for their opposition to stem-cell research. Son Ron Reagan's July 27 speech before the Democratic convention was just the beginning. A more pointed moment will come in New York next month, where the Republicans will meet to renominate Bush and, you can be assured, offer flowery tributes to the memory of former President Reagan. GOP chairman Ed Gillespie says Mrs. Reagan is welcome to attend. Don't bet the farm on it.
John Kerry. The candidate did what he had to do, pure and simple. The convention was united. His speech had a certain passion. And he successfully made a prima facie case for his candidacy. Kerry is not going to convince too many Republican loyalists to switch, the nation's cultural/political divide being what it is. But most independents seem likely to side with Kerry for the time being -- at least until the President launches a counteroffensive.
The TV networks. The broadcast networks get one of the most valuable pieces of corporate welfare that exists anywhere: free use of our nation's broadcast spectrum. In exchange, they owe the public a little bit of public service. That means real coverage of public affairs issues. And it should mean extensive coverage of political conventions and Presidential debates. By opting to air just one hour of the Democratic convention on three of the convention's four nights, ABC, NBC, and CBS let the public down. The once-venerable Big Three networks missed the highlight of the convention -- Barack Obama's fabulous keynote address -- and they skipped newsworthy speeches by Jimmy Carter, Wes Clark, Max Cleland, and many others. Their pathetic efforts at voiceover sophistry and punditry in Boston -- and an equally paltry presentation slated for New York -- give them a couple more well-deserved black eyes.
Cable TV. CNN, the leading purveyor of news to Democratic voters, also ended up with egg on its face. All too often, the self-described trusted news source, opted to show its viewers the yakking faces of its own TV personalities rather than the action on the floor. For example, the network missed most of the electric speech by Clark. Sometimes, less commentary and more news would be good news. Fox -- CNN's conservative competition -- was so relentlessly negative that it might as well have advertised its coverage as a donation from media mogul Rupert Murdoch to the Republican National Committee and the Bush campaign. Thank goodness for C-SPAN!
Howard Dean. This guy was once the frontrunner for President? His Tuesday night speech elicited polite applause on the convention floor. Perhaps it was censored or dumbed-down by the convention organizers. Perhaps he wasn't comfortable with the Teleprompter technology. Whatever the reason, the former Vermont Governor looked like just another pol giving a speech, not the leader of an important grassroots movement.
The Hard Left. Anti-war protesters in the barbed-wire-enclosed protest pit were shouting that they should be on the convention floor, not left out in the drizzle. Not a chance. This was a mainstream convention, not a celebration of liberal interest groups. Convention speakers endorsed welfare reform, balanced budgets, and an expanded military. This was not your father's Democratic convention.
Free trade. There was not even a mention of free trade in the Democratic platform. Though Kerry has never been a protectionist, he is standing by, mute, while labor and environmental groups condemn our international trade agreements as job-killers. Unless Democrats say one thing before the election and do another thing next year, there's not much of a future for trade liberalization under a Kerry Administration.
Corporate America. Corporate-bashing is back in style. Not business in general, but evil multinationals that export American jobs to low-wage nations that despoil the environment and oppress their workers. A caricature? That's for sure. But polls show that it's good politics. The Democratic nominee can make a compelling case for his pro-business bona fides, but his nominating convention offered precious little praise for free enterprise (see BW, 8/2/04, "Talking Business with John Kerry").
The balloon guy. Things went pretty smoothly for Kerry in Boston. One major exception was the much-anticipated balloon drop at the end of the convention. The red, white, and blue extravaganza usually makes for telegenic images. But this year, an equipment malfunction led to a delay in the balloon drop and some on-air obscenity from a convention official. Dick Cheney, you're not alone in using bad words in public. Janet Jackson it wasn't, but it sure was embarrassing for Terry McAuliffe & Co.
Let's see if the Republicans can make the balloons drop on time in New York. I can't wait for the fun to begin at the Garden.
Dunham is BusinessWeek's Washington-based chief political correspondent. Follow his views in Washington Watch, only on BusinessWeek Online
Edited by Douglas Harbrecht