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The Democratic Convention

interior-denverThis article first appeared in the Sunday Herald, on August 30, 2008.

They gave out the flags at three o’clock, one for every person in the stadium. Generals, in uniform, lined up on the stage, a Doobie Brother sang America The Beautiful and Al Gore compared Barack Obama to Abraham Lincoln. I told the woman thanks, but no thanks, I’m not American. “You are tonight,” she said, pressing the Stars And Stripes into my hand. On the day he accepted the Democratic nomination, the force of Obama’s patriotism was enough to convert unbelievers.

It was a risk, super-sizing his speech at a football pitch sponsored by a merchant bank. Invesco Field, home of the Denver Broncos, holds eighty thousand people. As they waved their banners, thundered their feet on the terraces for emphasis and chanted U-S-A it felt like the right decision. The fake Greek columns that Republicans are calling “the temple of Obama” looked a bit Spinal Tap, but they were the only rock star vanity on show.

Obama’s address was calculated to undercut suggestions that he is arrogant, remote and un-American. He spoke of his grandfather the soldier, his grandmother the secretary and his mother, a white woman holding a brown baby on the giant video screens, who raised two children on her own and sometimes needed food stamps. “I don’t know what kind of lives John McCain thinks that celebrities lead, but this has been mine,” he said.

He promised to cut taxes for 95% of working families, drew a stark contrast between the Bush and Clinton years and wove specific energy, education and health care policies into his party’s standard economic message. He hammered change and barely mentioned hope. He also marched straight into the Republican nominee’s local and asked him to step outside. “If John McCain wants to have a debate about who has the temperament and judgment to serve as the next commander-in-chief, that’s a debate I’m ready to have.”

Obama closed with an allusion to Martin Luther King’s most famous speech, exactly forty-five years ago at the Lincoln Memorial in Washington. “We cannot walk alone,” he declared, because “in America, our destiny is inextricably linked.” This was ostensibly an appeal to collective responsibility, but it was also one last attempt to frame a debate grander than the strengths and weaknesses of his candidacy. “This election has never been about me,” he said. Republicans will have something to say about that.

November’s election is a referendum and the party which sets the question will win. If Democrats succeed in controlling the agenda, voters will be passing judgement on the Bush administration. If Republicans dictate the terms, the subject will be Obama: Is he ready? More to the point, is America ready for him?

The Democratic convention had three main targets. It hit them again and again, like an Olympic archer. Obama was presented in a context middle America could relate to. The Clintons played nice and shepherded their supporters back into the tent. Voters were reminded that McCain represents the same party as Bush.

No-one can sit through an entire session of a convention without getting restless. There were more than sixty speakers on the first day alone, each keen to thank the right people and announce that Arkansas has the best barbecue sauce recipe in the land or that Kentucky’s “vibrant economy has captured the world’s attention”. But as a means of absorbing the Democratic party’s message and mode it was instructive. The default way to start a sentence was “we cannot afford four more years of…” neglect, corruption, incompetence, cronyism, insert as appropriate.

Joe Biden is the designated attack dog and he tore into his “good friend John McCain” with gusto, but he is also what political hacks call a “validator” who connects the candidate with groups that might otherwise find it difficult to relate to him. He said that he and Obama “share a common story” before praising his character. “You can learn an awful lot about a man campaigning with him. You learn about the strength of his mind. But even more importantly, you learn about the quality of his heart.” The handouts for delegates to wave read Common Values, Common Purpose, One Nation and Strong Middle Class.

Earthing Obama was priority number one. That much was obvious from his wife Michelle’s speech on the opening night as “a daughter, raised on the South Side of Chicago by a father who was a blue-collar city worker and a mother who stayed at home.” It was transparent in the satellite link that followed, when the camera zoomed out from Barack’s grin to reveal his “wonderful hosts” in Kansas City, the unthreateningly white Gerardo family. “Just like us, they have daughters,” he noted. Just like us.

The Clintons were next. Their baggage filled the hall. The American media was so intent on discussing their supposedly strained relationship with Obama that for two days, official talking points could scarcely be heard over the clamour for a strategic leak, a bad-tempered remark, some awkward body language – anything to show that the Clintons were here under duress and that the primary season was an open wound. It never came.

The hardcore Hillary refuseniks were certainly visible, marching through the city centre shouting “no we won’t” under the banner of Party Unity My Ass. After months of half-heartedly chanting “yes she will” at campaign events, they finally had a snappy counter to Obama’s ubiquitous “yes we can” which summed up their recalcitrant position perfectly.

Television crews lapped it up, feeding it into a pre-fabricated narrative of disunity much more dramatic than the group hug being staged for the cameras inside the convention hall. It didn’t matter that it was only half true. The demonstrators were so divided on the issues that they couldn’t really claim to represent anyone, much less a dissident wing of the party.

There were Democrats upset with the nomination process and self-described independents with straightforwardly Republican views. For every woman like Mieke Apple, who was “angry because they’re pushing a candidate down our throats” there was another like Vivian Texan who believed that “John McCain would make a great President.” The first group will swallow their pride and vote for Obama in November. The second were never Democrats anyway. “We’d rather have Cindy McCain as our first lady,” Texan told me. “Obama has no class, no judgement.”

So while there is real discontent with the way Obama was nominated, particularly among middle-aged white women, it doesn’t necessarily mean lost votes. Rebecca Todd was dressed in a sandwich-board of old Hillary For President signs. “I’m not ready to switch over, baby. I want a roll call,” she told me. So would she vote for McCain? “Oh no, I can’t do that.”

Inside the Pepsi Centre, Clinton delegates had adopted the unity mantra enthusiastically. “As they realise who they’re going to have to choose between, they’ll get over their anger,” said Pamela Jackson. “Temper tantrums, I call it.” Jewish war veteran Bill Kling agreed. “They’re a little upset,” he said. “But the primary is over. After today it’s one party together.”

Hillary’s speech on Tuesday night started the healing process. At first, she seemed to be running an old tape from Ohio or Pennsylvania, until she pivoted half way through and asked her supporters “were you in this campaign just for me?” The endorsement that followed was not quite enough to dispel the impression that if McCain wins in November Clinton’s response will be to sigh, say “I told you so” and start planning her 2012 campaign, but she praised Obama often enough that no-one could accuse her of being ungracious.

When Clinton loyalist Debbie Wasserman-Schulz seconded Obama’s nomination the next day, it was clear the roll call had been just as tightly scripted, to give Hillary her due without compromising the overriding message. All Democrats are united, but some are more united than others.

State by state, in alphabetical order, the delegations made their pledges. Florida’s spokesperson pointedly referred to “one person, one vote” but then gave the whole lot to Obama. Montana’s chairwoman delivered seven of the state’s delegates to “my friend and America’s friend, Hillary Clinton” before a man in a cowboy hat allocated the remainder to “the next President of the United States”. And so it continued, an excruciating crawl through America’s blackboard alphabet, until New Hampshire and New Jersey unanimously nominated Obama.

The fix was in. Clinton took the microphone on behalf of New York, Illinois and New Mexico, whose votes had been grouped together precisely so she could put Obama over the top. “In the spirit of unity with the goal of victory, let’s declare together with one voice, right here, right now, that Barack Obama is our candidate and will be our President,” she proposed.

The “all those in favour” was a celebration, the “all those against” so rushed that there wasn’t a breath in which to boo. The band was playing Love Train by the O’Jays and Obama had been nominated.

No-one expected Bill Clinton to get on board without a sulk. Cable news chatter painted him as the injured party, still smarting from being called racist by Obama surrogates in South Carolina. If he felt disrespected, he hid it well. His benediction on Wednesday night had all the warmth Hillary’s lacked, as well as an explicit commendation of Obama’s ability to lead the country that she did not offer.

He began by joking that the primary season “generated so much heat, it increased global warming” but soon set to lauding Obama unreservedly. “He has the intelligence and curiosity every successful President needs,” Clinton said. “He has shown a clear grasp of our foreign policy and national security challenges… His life is a 21st Century incarnation of the American Dream.” When it was over, some comedian in the band played Addicted To Love by Robert Palmer, but delegates were in the mood to cheer, not laugh.

The Clintons were the media’s best hope of a wrinkle in the Democratic National Committee’s ironed dress shirt. The sun shone for four days, there were no floor protests and just a handful of police beatings. Nothing had been left to chance. Obama’s coronation was a televised pageant bearing no relation to the brutal power struggles of old. Senator George McGovern, a veteran of two of the bloodiest conventions ever in 1968 and 1972, must have allowed himself a wry smile.

The official playing cards, on sale for $10 at the merchandise stand, had evidently been designed while bitterness still lingered. Obama was the ace and king of all four suits, Hillary was the queen of diamonds and Bill was conspicuously absent. The jokers, naturally, were Bush, Cheney and McCain. The Republican party will reveal its hand next week.