See John Harwood in the New York Times blog, The Caucus. Political conventions have been dying, even if dying very slowly:
The first blow came from presidential primaries, whose growth in recent decades has taken the power to select nominees away from political insiders and given it to ordinary voters. That’s why the vaunted superdelegates – the closest thing remaining to old-style convention power-brokers – had less than a super impact on the outcome of Barack Obama’s nomination battle against Hillary Rodham Clinton.
Ideological realignment – conservatives toward the Republican Party, liberals toward the Democrats – produced a second malady. Fewer factions means fewer fights, once a central convention activity.
The vagaries of modern media have inflicted another blow. Mass exposure led parties to jettison their sillier carnival moments; in 1948, the first year conventions were televised, Republicans paraded a baby elephant in Philadelphia. In 1952 the average TV viewer watched each convention for more than 10 hours.
Those days are gone. And after 1968 in Chicago, the Democrats, and the Republicans, saw the advantage of tight stage management. Riots in the streets and the cops roughing up reporters on the convention floor tend to put off people, people you want to vote for your guys. Now it’s all controlled, and all potential conflicts pre-resolved. In fact, everything has been decided. Most corporate stockholders meetings are more exciting. There’s more action at a Star Trek convention in Van Nuys.
Now we get the talking heads on television discussing how well each party managed its message – tight message-management being the only thing worth discussing. It’s kind of like listening to the commentators at the Olympics with their live coverage of gymnastics or diving – telling us who had the most control and grace, and really planted the landing – with slow-motion replays. The only possible excitement at the Democratic Convention in Denver might be if Keith Olbermann were to haul off and slug Chris Matthews for running off at the mouth and saying something really crass and stupid, as Matthews is wont to do. So watch MSNBC – it could happen. And Keith Olbermann is, of course, the right man for the job – he used to be a sportscaster.
Harwood quotes Daron Shaw, a political scientist from the University of Texas, on what we can expect, on what these conventions have become – “successful modern conventions included three distinct phases: narrative (the candidate’s story), contrast (attacks on the opposition), and vision (laid out in the nominee’s acceptance speech).”
That’s it. There are few surprises. Harwood notes the few – “John F. Kennedy in his short-lived bid for the vice presidential nomination at the 1956 convention, for Bill Clinton in 1988, and for Illinois state Senator Barack Obama in 2004.”
Consider those exceptions – that and the riots in Chicago way back when.
In Harpers, Ken Silverstein interviews Chris Lehmann about media coverage of the conventions compared to the debates which will follow:
The debates between the candidates could be important, but the conventions are stultifying media spectacles where no one expects anything to happen. The reason so much political coverage on cable is crap is that there is an effort to portray the campaign as this floating spectacle; it’s devoid of public interest. Not to be too conspiratorial, but there is an economic interest at stake because you want people to come back and watch the same drivel the next day, in the same way that I obsessively check the sports section to see how the Cubs did. That’s why the VP speculation is so perfect for cable; you can fill up all that airtime without any reporting. There are studies of the content of broadcast news that show that something shy of ten percent of the coverage is original reporting. They’re constantly re-running the one time they got some hapless anchor to stand in front of a hurricane, or it’s just incessant talking head speculation.
Rick, the News Guy in Atlanta, one of the team that founded CNN, comments:
I was ready to agree with this guy, but after thinking about it, realized it just wasn’t right to concur with anyone who confesses to checking the sports section every day to see how the Cubs are doing. I see the conventions the way I see announcing the pick for your running mate – both make me anxious because there are plenty of chances for something to go wrong, but very few chances of anything genuinely good coming out of it.
Ah, so it is like avidly watching gymnastics and diving – so much can go wrong, and that’s interesting. It’s amazing stuff when it goes perfectly, but that’s rarer than rare. You watch the heartbreaking mistakes, where the drama is. And at the national party conventions, each party will try to hide any serious mistakes or gaffes, and the talking heads try to reveal them. That’s the game. It’ll do.
But if tight message-management is the equivalent of that perfect ten-meter dive or flawless routine on the uneven bars, at the political conventions you get something not allowed at the Olympics – a competitor actively trying to screw you up, big time.
Obama has the nomination. On Wednesday, during a meeting in Denver with her pledged delegates, Hillary Clinton will likely tell them they’re free to vote for Barack Obama, or so the Associated Press reports here – but pledged delegates aren’t really pledged to anyone, as the Clinton folks had actually argued long ago – so even without being released, they could vote for Obama, and if they are released, they can still vote for Clinton. This is just a traditional thing for the runners-up to do – a signal to the party that she’s not trying to stand in Obama’s way. The conflict is over. Some of her die-hard supporters will make noise, but she’ll tell them to cool it. It’s over.
But enter John McCain and his new television ad – Barack Obama didn’t pick Hillary Clinton as his running mate because he couldn’t handle her criticisms, as, your see, “the truth hurt and he couldn’t handle it.”
ANNOUNCER: She won millions of votes. But isn’t on his ticket. Why? For speaking the truth. On his plans:
HILLARY CLINTON: “You never hear the specifics.”
ANNOUNCER: On the Rezko scandal:
HILLARY CLINTON: “We still don’t have a lot of answers about Senator Obama.”
ANNOUNCER: On his attacks:
HILLARY CLINTON: “Senator Obama’s campaign has become increasingly negative.”
ANNOUNCER: The truth hurt. And Obama didn’t like it.
JOHN MCCAIN: I’m John McCain and I approved this message.
The implications – she had his number, all along, and he’s a weak whiner who’s afraid of a woman, of all things, and you’ve all been duped.
Well, Obama did pick Biden. At the New Republic, Jonathan Cohn comments:
It’s a dubious assertion, but the merits of the argument are, for all practical purposes, beside the point. This ad is designed to stoke the resentment of wavering Clinton voters and to make sure the Clinton controversy remains part of the convention storyline. I’ll leave it to others to determine whether this gambit will work. I wouldn’t think so, but, then, I didn’t think this whole saga would last as long as it has.
It’s like a heckler at that diving competition – “Hey, Buddy! Someone emptied the pool!”
That’ll break your concentration, even if you laugh it off.
The Clinton folks released a response:
Hillary Clinton’s support of Barack Obama is clear. She has said repeatedly that Barack Obama and she share a commitment to changing the direction of the country, getting us out of Iraq, and expanding access to health care. John McCain doesn’t. It’s interesting how those remarks didn’t make it into his ad.
That’s fine, although a visual – say, Clinton offering a sharp, emphatic response for the cameras – might help a lot more, particularly if it’s quick. That way, it would refute the McCain argument while it’s still in the news, rather than prolonging the story longer than necessary.
In the long run, though, what really matters is how the convention unfolds. If Clinton’s supporters get the message that Obama believes what they do on the issues – and, perhaps more important, if they get that message from Clinton herself, in her convention speech – then they will come around.
This may be no big deal – although one suspects this may be the only ad McCain runs through November. He wants those angry Hillary supporters to vote for him. He has pissed off so many on the hard right he needs those who feel Hilary was wronged, and who want to make a point. There may not be that many of them left after the convention, but he needs the votes.
Clinton will make her appeal for Obama – and mean it. But now she’ll have to do it again and again.
But it’s not just McCain messing around here. Cohn suggests that the media – those talking heads – have some responsibility here:
Controversy makes for good coverage, I know. But for all the talk of disunity, the really remarkable story about the Democrats right now is the absence of meaningful dissent on the party’s agenda. When it comes to substance, the Democrats are arguably more united than they have been since the early 1960s. Yes, you can find divisions on both domestic and foreign policy, on everything from the relative priority of deficit reduction to America’s response to Darfur. But these debates don’t match the kind we’ve seen in the past.
But the absence of meaningful dissent is boring. And there’s airtime to fill, and ratings to consider.
Kevin Drum, now blogging at Mother Jones, sees the McCain folks being shortsighted:
This is just bizarre. Has any presidential candidate ever before run an ad mocking his opponent for not choosing a particular running mate? I think the folks running McCain’s war room are getting cabin fever or something.
But who knows? Maybe an attack ad this transparent will be just the thing to finally get all those ex-Hillary supporters fully on board with Obama. Sort of the way trash talk from the Yankees ends up on the front page of the Boston Globe and fires up even fair weather Red Sox fans. That’s pretty much how it would affect me, anyway.
And he too sees the unity:
On trade and economic issues, the left and right of the party have both moved in each other’s direction since the early 90s and the remaining disagreements are pretty moderate. Nearly everyone is united on some form of liberal internationalism as our favored foreign policy stance, and nearly everyone wants to withdraw from Iraq. Social issues have largely sorted themselves out. There’s surprisingly broad agreement about what our energy policy ought to look like. And there’s virtual unanimity on the broad contours of how we should tackle healthcare.
It’s not all sweetness and light, but aside from optics and personality issues, liberals really are remarkably united this year. It’s kinda scary in a way. I blame the blogosphere.
Blogs do tend to get things aligned, but you can hammer away at that unity from the outside, as in this:
Minnesota Gov. Tim Pawlenty, who is on Sen. John McCain’s (R-AZ) vice presidential short list, criticized Sen. Barack Obama (D-IL) yesterday for his selection of Sen. Joe Biden (D-DE) as his running mate. Instead, Pawlenty said that Obama should have picked Gen. David Petraeus, whom he considers “an outstanding leader and somebody who would better represent the mainstream of the country.”
Yep, the country is tired of civilian leadership – let the generals run things. That item also points out that Petraeus is the right wing’s dream candidate, which links to the New York Sun editorial Petraeus for President and all the rest of the commentary. And the item notes that in mid-August the “McCain campaign floated Petraeus as a VP choice, despite the general’s previous declaration that he has no desire to ever run for public office.”
Can the ads be far behind? Why didn’t you people nominate David Petraeus? What is wrong with you?
That’s probably a loser. Democrats, if nothing else, think civilian control of the governments is a fine thing. But maybe McCain can talk David Petraeus into accepting the gig on the Republican ticket – it is said Petraeus is an ambitious man, thinking of running for president in 2012. McCain could help – he could promise to pack it in after one term. You never know.
In any event, the McCain folks are trying to rattle the Democrats prior to the convention.
The problem is that the Democrats cannot do the same in the days before the Republicans get-together in Minneapolis, even if there’s that airport there with the restroom where Senator Larry Craig got busted playing gay-foot-games, and that’s where the bridge collapsed, what may be the first of many as no one is paying attention to the nation’s infrastructure, and no one has since FDR and the Works Progress Administration.
The problem is McCain has that get-out-of-jail-free card. On Sunday, August 24, Greg Sargent explained:
McCain slipped a reference to his war captivity into an interview McCain did with CBS that’s airing today. He appeared to be referring to Joe Biden’s crack yesterday that McCain has trouble considering people’s kitchen table issues because he has to decide which of his own seven kitchen tables to use.
The key quote:
“I am grateful for the fact that I have a wonderful life,” McCain said. “I spent some years without a kitchen table, without a chair, and I know what it’s like to be blessed by the opportunities of this great nation… So the fact is that we have homes, and I’m grateful for it.”
Sargent has a take on this:
The McCain campaign appears to see that the Dem attacks on the houses gaffe risk being effective as character attacks, in that they are designed to portray him as out-of-touch and even pampered in a way that undercuts his down-to-earth war-hero bio and its intended contrast with Obama as an effete, untested celeb. Hence the frequent response invoking his war service.
But the “McCain-as-POW” currency the McCain camp is printing at such a furious rate – and throwing wads of at every controversy that comes along – is now losing value faster than the German Mark after World War I.
In fact, Maureen Dowd, in the New York Times, devoted her Sunday column to this:
My mom did not approve of men who cheated on their wives. She called them “long-tailed rats.”
During the 2000 race, she listened to news reports about John McCain confessing to dalliances that caused his first marriage to fall apart after he came back from his stint as a P.O.W. in Vietnam.
I figured, given her stringent moral standards, that her great affection for McCain would be dimmed.
“So,” I asked her, “what do you think of that?”
“A man who lives in a box for five years can do whatever he wants,” she replied matter-of-factly.
I was startled, but it brought home to me what a powerful get-out-of-jail-free card McCain had earned by not getting out of jail free.
It’s her usual clever writing:
His brutal hiatus in the Hanoi Hilton is one of the most stirring narratives ever told on the presidential trail – a trail full of heroic war stories. It created an enormous credit line of good will with the American people. It also allowed McCain, the errant son of the admiral who was the commander of U.S. forces in the Pacific during Vietnam – his jailers dubbed McCain the “Crown Prince” – to give himself some credit.
But she’s not impressed. And the meat of the column is full of telling detail. But the closing is key:
The real danger to the McCain crew in overusing the POW line so much that it’s a punch line is that it will give Obama an opening for critical questions:
While McCain’s experience was heroic, did it create a worldview incapable of anticipating the limits to U.S. military power in Iraq? Did he fail to absorb the lessons of Vietnam, so that he is doomed to always want to refight it? Did his captivity inform a search-and-destroy, shoot-first-ask-questions-later, “We are all Georgians,” mentality?
When this sort of thing goes mainstream there could be trouble for McCain. As she says – “His campaign is cheapening his greatest strength – and making a mockery of his already dubious claim that he’s reticent to talk about his POW experience – by flashing the POW card to rebut any criticism, no matter how unrelated.”
Of course the McCain campaign has come to the opposite conclusion:
They will be prepared to show McCain’s “home” in Hanoi by using images of his cell. They claim they have not overused the POW element and insist they have “underused it.”
They will double-down, as they say in Las Vegas.
As for what McCain said to Couric – that he has lots of homes and servants and all sort of goodies because he once didn’t – Andrew Sullivan says this:
This is clinical. He’s responding to middle class economic anxiety by referring to the Hanoi Hilton?
Well, it has worked so far.
The Democrats could use this line of attack: “You cannot answer every embarrassing question with POW!” Or maybe you can.
In the same Sunday Times, Frank Rich suggests another approach:
Is a man who is just discovering the Internet qualified to lead a restoration of America’s economic and educational infrastructures? Is the leader of a virtually all-white political party America’s best salesman and moral avatar in the age of globalization? Does a bellicose Vietnam veteran who rushed to hitch his star to the self-immolating overreaches of Ahmad Chalabi, Pervez Musharraf and Mikheil Saakashvili have the judgment to keep America safe?
A bridge to the more polarizing global politics of the 20th Century? Or a man with more caution, steadiness and pragmatism? That’s the choice.
Expect that sort of thing, along with the idea there is no get-out-of-jail-free card anymore, before the next convention.
As for the Democratic Convention, the McCain folks will be sending in their shills for Hillary.
Perhaps there will be something else on television.