August 2008

A brilliant week of politics

Friday, August 29th, 2008

Politics may be one of the dark arts, but it is an art all the same — and we have seen some masterpieces in recent days.

Both the Obama and McCain campaigns have shown shrewdness, subtlety and discipline in planning and executing their strategies since the Democratic Convention began.

Start with the Democrats. From the low-key likability of the “just folks” first night, through the traditional populist stem winding of nights two and three, and on through the dazzling theatrics of Obama’s closing coronation, the event had a dynamic pace and an engaging story line.

The main speeches were solid and skillfully delivered. Hillary Clinton is twice the orator now that she was at the beginning of her campaign. And together the Clintons couldn’t have been better — or better behaved — in throwing their support behind the nominee.

As always Obama displayed his perfect pitch for the music the spoken word can produce.

It’s true, as many have observed, that Obama’s speech was more prosaic and policy focused — less stirring and transcendent — than some of his earlier efforts. Much of it was a bit of a populist laundry list for center-left voters.

But the amazing spectacle of the Mile-High Stadium happening ensured that the event as a whole couldn’t possibly fall short of expectations. That’s probably why it was done.

But what was most impressive was the consistent, clearly deliberate, restraint of all the big speeches. The full bill of indictment against the Repuplicans was handed down, to be sure, but the anger and indignation with which it was expressed was muted, slightly but unmistakably.

Above all, the Democrats seldom questioned the motives of their adversaries. How often during the week did a leading Democrat acknowledge that Republicans love their country and want what’s best for it, but are simply misguided or inept?

Almost never, at least in the leading speeches, did we hear it asserted that Republicans have sold out or betrayed the American people for the selfish benefit of their fat cat friends.

This “well-meaning but wrong” message is a different tone than we’ve sometimes heard before. It is an Obama tone.

The rage reduction may or may not be good political strategy. The point here is only that it plainly was a strategy, implemented with remarkable discipline.

Now, for the Republicans. The problem they faced is as simple to explain as it was hard to address: How to create some distraction during Obama’s moment, and bring that moment to a quick conclusion, without seeming unsportsmanlike?

One solution, of course, was to roll out a television ad during coverage of Obama’s acceptance speech in which John McCain pleasantly congratulated his rival without a hint of malice. It was a unique and masterful stroke.

For the rest, the running mate piece, it’s unclear what fueled all the veep speculations of Thursday night, so believe in happenstance if you will, but here’s how it turned out:

A tremendous frenzy of guessing and tea leaf reading ensued among media types, and all of the bets about McCain’s veep choice turned out to be wrong. This lent credence to the other story that got repeated again and again Thursday night — that McCain and his people were determined to keep his pick secret, lest a leak rain on Obama’s deserved parade.

But somehow the totally surprising — and, if nothing else, dramatic — choice of Sarah Palin leaked at the break of dawn Friday. It leaked, in other words, like clockwork, at the very first moment when it wouldn’t appear inappropriate.

Result: Some Thursday night distraction, with no mischievous McCain fingerprints, and a subject-changing shocker Friday morning.

The wisdom or folly of the Palin choice itself isn’t immediately clear. But it’s easy to imagine that Democrats will find Palin trickier to attack than Mitt Romney or Tim Pawlenty.

All of this, on both sides, is politics at its sharpest. Who knows what the week ahead may bring.

Dreams and grass roots

Friday, August 29th, 2008

DENVER — Democrats rallying behind Barack Obama’s quest for the White House fanned out from Denver on Friday with the sense that their journey will be greater than a political campaign.

Following their first black party leader, a 47-year-old senator from Illinois who promises to fulfill the legacy of Martin Luther King Jr.’s dream and bring “change” to Washington, Obama’s faithful say they are ready to take their campaign to every state, every county and every doorstep.

“The nation seems to be moving toward the dream of Dr. King,” said Josie Johnson, a Minnesota delegate and longtime civil rights activist. “Obama may give us elements of America’s dream, and of the world’s dream.”

But supporters who filled the Invesco Field stands Thursday night to hear Obama’s acceptance speech also left with a clear-eyed assessment of the challenges they confront, mindful not to repeat the mistakes of 2004, when Democratic candidate John Kerry relinquished his party’s traditional grass-roots organizing advantage to the Republicans.

“We’re going to keep doing what we’ve been doing all year,” said Minneapolis Mayor R.T. Rybak, a co-chairman of the Obama campaign in Minnesota. “We’re building our grass-roots infrastructure and going door-to-door to get votes, building on this year’s record turnout at the caucuses.”

The Obama camp is convinced that it has a candidate with an appeal beyond politics, one who has energized young people, minorities, and others who have remained on the sidelines of past elections. Accordingly, they plan to supplement Obama’s considerable fundraising prowess with viral e-mail and text-messaging campaigns, voter registration drives, rallies, and other tactics resembling the tone of a crusade.

“This is not a campaign any longer,” said U.S. Rep. Neil Abercrombie, a Hawaii Democrat who addressed the Minnesota delegates this week. “It is a movement, and it’s going to sweep across the country.”

Wellstone memories
Minnesota, where the memories of the late Sen. Paul Wellstone’s green school bus campaigns are still fresh, provides the template for the Democrats’ approach to the fall presidential race.

With former Wellstone aide Jeff Blodgett at the helm of Obama’s state organization, the Democrats hope to replicate the populist energy that sent a college professor to the U.S. Senate — a political feat little less improbable than Obama’s claim over the Democratic nomination.

U.S. Sen. Amy Klobuchar, a Minnesota superdelegate to the convention, said Democrats are determined not to be out-hustled again on the ground: “Putting someone like Jeff Blodgett in charge in Minnesota is an example of that.”

The enthusiasm emanating from the Denver convention is easy to parody, and the Republicans have done just that, ridiculing the elaborate stagecraft of Obama’s massive stadium rally as proof that show business has overtaken substance in “The Temple of Obama.”

But Democrats dismiss that line of attack as one of the few hands Republicans have to play, in light of the obvious advantage Obama has against presumptive GOP nominee John McCain in terms of youth and vigor.

However thin Obama’s “change” mantra might wear among Republicans and others outside the Democrats’ campaign, there is no question it has sparked renewed energy in a party and a civil rights establishment that many thought had seen its best days.

“That’s why we’re Democrats,” said U.S. Rep. Sheila Jackson Lee, a Texas civil rights icon who came by one morning to fire up the Minnesota contingent. “We have a passion and a desire for change. We have overcome.”

Few analysts on either side of the party divide believe that the Republican National Convention coming to the Twin Cities next week will be able to replicate the sense of history achieved by the Democrats.

“It’s huge,” said Minnesota House Speaker Margaret Anderson Kelliher, who came to Denver as a guest of the Minnesota delegation. “Our enthusiasm is going to be the key to success in the presidential campaign, and in the legislative races we’re running in Minnesota. It’s going to be door-to-door. Not a county in the state will be left out.”

New chapter in race relations?
Among other Democrats looking forward from Denver, there is the hope not only of ending eight years of Republican control of the White House, but — no matter which way the election goes — of turning to a new chapter in the history of race relations in a country founded by slaveholders.

“It’s a crowning, glorious opportunity,” said longtime Minneapolis community organizer Bill Davis.

Leaving a breakfast meeting with Minnesota delegates earlier this week, U.S. Rep. Mike Honda, a California Democrat who spent time in a World War II internment camp for Japanese-Americans, tried to visualize Obama’s young children playing in the White House lawn next year.

“I have that hymn in my mind, ‘Oh Happy Days,’” he said.

…Well, THIS is different

Thursday, August 28th, 2008

For much of today, there’s been much buzz about the McCain’s campaign plans for Barack Obama’s big night tonight (overshadowed, granted, by the vice-presidential buzz).

There had been talk that McCain would try to step on Obama’s big acceptance speech with some kind of attack ad. Nope, it turns out that it’s an ad congratulating the Democratic nominee for his historic achievement.

Here’s the script, provided by the campaign:

JOHN MCCAIN: Senator Obama, this is truly a good day for America.

Too often the achievements of our opponents go unnoticed. So I wanted to
stop and say, congratulations.

How perfect that your nomination would come on this historic day.
Tomorrow, we’ll be back at it. But tonight Senator, job well done.

I’m John McCain and I approved this message.

And here’s the video.


Thursday, August 28th, 2008

Republicans are not waiting for Barack Obama to deliver his formal acceptance speech tonight in Mile High Stadium to start picking apart his moment in the national – if not global — limelight.

Already, they’ve seized on a stage set featuring Greek columns to question whether the Democratic nominee for president isn’t going a little over the top, calling it the “Temple of Obama” “The Barackopolis.”

The McCain campaign sent out a mocking e-mail Wednesday asking if togas and robes might be the appropriate dress code for the thousands of adoring Obama fans who will fill the stadium on Thursday night.

“For celebrities and lobbyists, please add the red over toga,” the GOP memo suggests.
It fits in with a pet Republican theme in this campaign: That Obama’s soaring oratory is more style than substance, and that he might even suffer from an undiagnosed messianic complex of some sort.

Democrats see it as a case of sour grapes: John McCain, they say, couldn’t fill a 76,000 stadium.

Said R.T. Rybak, the mayor of a Minnesota city that rhymes with Barackopolis: “They have to talk about that because they’re dealing with a candidate who can’t get people excited.”
Some at the Democratic National Convention in Denver see the classical columns as a reminder of JFK’s 1960 acceptance speech in the L.A. Coliseum.

But the New York Post reports that the set is designed to evoke the White House and the Lincoln Memorial, not the Acropolis or a Roman coliseum. They cite staging supervisor Bobby Allen, who has done sets for Britney Spears and other pop icons.

We remember Spears from a recent McCain ad. Moses was in it too. And Paris Hilton. Have we mentioned Paris Hilton lately? Paris Hilton in a toga?


Democrats to miss Coleman’s teeth, but not Coleman

Thursday, August 28th, 2008

Well, they call each other friends in the U.S. Senate, but Rhode Island Sen. Sheldon Whitehouse, a Democrat, may have some fence-mending to do with Minnesota Republican Norm Coleman when they get back to Washington next month.

Whitehouse, speaking at the Minnesota delegation’s Democratic National Convention breakfast meeting Thursday morning, keyed in on Coleman’s much publicized dental surgery in his remarks about his race against DFL challenger Al Franken, who has a big smile of his own.

“I love the teeth,” Whitehouse said, “but I’m not going to miss Norm Coleman.”

Norm weighs in, on Pawlenty veepstakes, and the prez race

Thursday, August 28th, 2008

As the frenzy of speculation about Gov. Tim Pawlenty’s vice-presidential prospects ratcheted ever high today, Sen. Norm Coleman weighed in on the matter, saying he would be “thrilled” if it happens.

Speaking to reporters after a speech to the Republican National Committee, which is meeting in Minneapolis, Coleman said the odds of Pawlenty being tapped are “probably 50-50,” but was quick to say he has absolutely no inside knowledge of what John McCain will do.

“It would be a magnificent moment” and a “historic” occasion in Minnesota politics, he said.

And even if Pawenty isn’t chosen, the “fact that he’s even one of the finalists says great things about him,” Coleman said. “Goodness gracious, he’s reached the finals of the American Idol of politics. He’s already a winner.”

As for the effect of a McCain-Pawlenty ticket on his race against Democratic challenger Al Franken, his supporters “might work just a little harder” on behalf of his campaign.

In his speech to the RNC, Coleman carried the torch for McCain, slammed Barack Obama and took a sharp poke at Franken, who Republican operatives have been trying to paint as angry and hot-headed. [The DFL] is hoping he holds his breath until the state turns blue,” Coleman said.

Americans “have a chance to elect a hero” in McCain, who “puts courage above calculation.”

A few sections of the speech oddly echoed the Democratic primary race. Coleman said the leadership personified by McCain “isn’t in the poetry of speeches, but in the prose of action” — a slam leveled against Obama months ago by Hillary Rodham Clinton. He also said a genuine leader “doesn’t say what you want to hear but what you need to hear” — a line long embedded in Obama’s stump speech. And when Coleman talked about the need for energy independence, he used Obama’s signature sound bite: “Yes we can end our dependence on foreign oil.”

Pawlenty cancels TV interviews

Thursday, August 28th, 2008

A headline like that may seem innocuous enough, but amid the fevered speculation about whom John McCain will select as a vice presidential running mate, maybe it’s a tea leaf. Or maybe not.

Minnesota Gov. Tim Pawlenty, in Denver as an unofficial Republican observer during the Democratic National Convention, has canceled several TV interviews that were scheduled for this afternoon, said a Republican spokesman.

Pawlenty said his travel plans — he is scheduled to be at the Minnesota State Fair on Friday — remain unchanged.

The governor, of course, has long been said to be on McCain’s list of potential veep picks.

Reports have said McCain may attend a rally with his running mate Friday in Dayton, Ohio.

The sport of politics

Thursday, August 28th, 2008

Denver – Downtown bars and restaurants typically catering to fans of professional basketball and football have been tuning their flat-screen televisions to the political theatrics happening down the street this week. Maloney’s Tavern turned down thumping rock music and instead turned up the volume for Michelle Obama’s speech Monday night. Tonight, reports the Rocky Mountain News, a local fish restaurant is hosting an “OBAMA-RAMA Acceptance Speech” party, with drinking games including a free drink any time Obama utters “Yes we can!”
Place your bets now on whether patrons will be tipsy by the end.

Mile High Pawlenty

Thursday, August 28th, 2008

DENVER – With the national media judging his every move for potential vice presidential body language, Gov. Tim Pawlenty hit the cable TV airwaves here today to chew on the pants leg of the Democratic Party’s presidential nominee and to trumpet the Not Ready 08 theme about Barack Obama’s qualifications for the White House.

Pawlenty appeared at a mid-morning press conference to use Democrat’s own words against them, including President Bill Clinton’s characterization once of an Obama presidency as “a roll of the dice” and with Vice Presidential running mate Joe Biden once saying the Presidency is “no place for on-the-job training.”

“Senator Obamma, what have you done and what have you run? When you look at those two questions, the answer is not much and nothing,” Pawlenty said.

Deflecting questions about whether he has had contact with presumptive Republican Presidential nominee John McCain about the vice presidency, Pawlenty told reporters he is “scheduled to be and am planning to be” at the Minnesota State Fair Friday morning, when McCain is expected to announce his running mate during a morning rally in Dayton, Ohio.

Pawlenty also said he is flying out of Denver later today and will be going back to Minnesota.

Not walking the talk; just walking away

Thursday, August 28th, 2008

Student journalists from Children’s PressLine in New York City are covering the Democratic National Convention. They’ll be in St. Paul next week. Here’s their daily report from Denver.

Hypocritical hype
The Youth Caucus panel at the Colorado Convention Center was highly concerned with how adults could get young voters politically involved. The panelists spoke on the importance of engaging young people through FaceBook and other online media sources.

The attendees, however, may not have shared this view. Out of our 14 attempts to get interviews, 10 people brushed us off. They had no time to be interviewed by two teenage journalists on politics. One 20-something guy turned us down because he was “in a rush,” yet when his friend pointed out the free T-shirts they had missed, he had time to run back inside for one.

However, Kierra Johnson, a 32-year-old delegate from Washington D.C., did have a moment to spare. She described her first voting experience with the same nostalgia that many would use to describe the birth of a child. “I was so excited!”

She also said that “for the first time in recent history the youth vote is one that’s going to decide this election.”

Hopefully they do not miss the opportunity because they are “in a rush.”

–Rachel Olfson

A model government?
Outside the grand ballroom of the Sheraton, surrounded by delegates and important-looking officials, Arizona State Senator Ken Chevron told us that we, as youth, shouldn’t look up to the members of the Congress.

“I hope that many of the younger generation don’t look to Congress for guidance,” he said. “I think you have to look within and look at other role models, not just politicians.”

As he gave the same firm handshake and reassuring smile we had grown so used to, we wondered who we should look up to, if not to the men and women who run our country.

–Anna Bernstein

Close but no cigar
Secret Service stood in front of heavy black curtains, keeping us outside the main hall inside the Pepsi Center. Around us stood angry delegates and press who also could not get in to see the political rock stars. We had been told that the seats inside were occupied. Regardless of credentials, nobody could enter.

We decided to drop our goal of interviewing elected officials on the floor of the arena and made our way around the less secure levels of the convention hall. What did people think about the seating system that kept them out of experiencing the excitement?

“This is just like a show, but going on in Denver right now,” said Matthew Ward, a donor to the Democratic party. “And what do they give for the big show? More tickets than there are seats. It’s a symptom of what’s happened to democracy in a capitalistic age.”

Washington State delegate Patrick Gunning did get a seat inside but kindly gave it up for an Obama delegate. “I think they should be realistic about the passes to the arena,” he said. “It’s kind of bogus.”

–Evan Wood

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