How It’s Done

Maybe it’s stagecraft. Out here in Hollywood they make movies and television shows that open with a bang – some amazing action sequence or puzzle that acts as the hook – but that’s followed by narrative exposition and character background, so you know what’s happening and why, which of course is the slow and boring part of things. Then you end in a full-out frenzy of nasty and satisfying whiz-bang stuff that startles and gratifies the audience, as things work out as they should – and then it’s all over. Somewhere around here, in all the crap one accumulates over all the years, are the guidelines for submitting a script to the original Star Trek series – Paramount’s strict rules for creating the fascinating opening ninety-second dilemma or crisis, the scene that locks in the audience before the soaring theme and opening credits and the first long block of commercials. That’s the hook. If it’s good enough no one will change channels. They’ll sit through endless ridiculous commercials, and a lot of boring exposition and tedious over-acted character development, just to see how it all works out. The hook is everything. It allows for the meandering and clumsy nonsense in the middle, with Shatner shamelessly hamming it up and all that pseudoscientific stuff that really never made any sense at all, before the wham-bam finale. That’s the plan, actually the structure of just about every television show, and it works well enough. Paramount simply sent out the standard rules, in this case with notes on what was permissible with Kirk and Spock, and what was not. It was a bit discouraging but really just a curiosity – only professional screenwriters ever submitted anything anyway.

The same structure has always applied in music too – almost every symphony ever written opens with something lively, followed by something slow and meditative, then perhaps a puzzling third movement, followed by the heroic and triumphant closing fourth movement. Sometimes there’s not even a third movement, as in Beethoven’s Fifth, where the third and fourth movements are merged together. After all, there are really just three things you want to do with your audience – grab them, lull them, and then amaze them. That the general rule and apparently the same thing applies in politics, or at least applies to political conventions. Hurricane Isaac disrupted the planned sequence for the Republicans in Tampa, cancelling the opening day, deferring and diffusing their clever “We Built That” hook and putting what was rousing and what was meditative in all the wrong places. And then Mitt Romney, accepting the nomination at the close, was hardly heroic and amazing. He only did well enough. The whole thing was a structural failure.

The Democrats lucked out in Charlotte – no hurricane – or they actually read the guidelines. Grab them, lull them, and then amaze them, and the first day was a great hook, as Peter Beinart explains here:

Because of their own backgrounds and personalities, Nixon, Reagan and even George W. Bush connected personally to working-class voters (at least white ones) in a way that partially overcame the GOP’s image problem. But Mitt Romney has not, and will not. In different ways, every Democratic speaker honed in on that vulnerability. And then Michelle Obama masterfully used it to reintroduce America to her husband. The entire subtext of her speech was: Barack Obama and I are like you; we come from families like yours; we’ve lived lives like yours. We’re the un-Romneys.

The hook is everything:

The presidential race remains close. But the Obama campaign has what the Clinton campaign had in 1992 and the Bush campaign in 2004: clarity of message. It’s a message that makes Romney’s policy views a function of his biography. And in these bad economic times, the Democrats are using it to achieve a kind of political jujitsu. Usually, the president who presides over a lousy economy gets accused of being out of touch. That’s what happened to Herbert Hoover, Jimmy Carter and George H.W. Bush. But by relentlessly depicting Romney as a detached plutocrat, the Obama campaign has turned that traditional narrative on its head.

The question is whether that was enough to hold people for the slow and boring part of things, the second of the three days of the convention, filled with policy details and procedural disputes, where the official list of speakers was less than inspiring, ending with the Big Dog, Bill Clinton. All the others seemed curiosities, and at the American Conservative, Noah Millman wondered about Bubba:

Clinton’s laying-on-of-hands will be heavy on reminders of how good the economy was during his tenure, but this is just the Democratic counterpart to the ludicrous Republican nostalgia-fest in Tampa. Barack Obama inherited a wildly different set of political and economic circumstances than Bill Clinton did – or than Ronald Reagan did in 1980. There’s no particular reason to believe that there’s some Clintonian “formula” for prosperity any more than there is to believe there’s a Reaganite one.

If Clinton helps Obama, it’ll be marginally. The kinds of voters Clinton appealed to that Obama doesn’t are probably beyond Obama’s reach. But more to the point, nobody can close this kind of sale for you. President Obama needs to close this sale himself. As I’m sure he knows.

There you have it. The second movement is always slow, although there was a little drama:

Following attacks from Republicans for removing language from its 2008 platform that declared Jerusalem to be Israel’s capital, the DNC tried to reinsert the plank with a floor vote on Wednesday. Many delegates voted against the amendment for a variety of reasons, but Los Angeles Mayor Antonio Villaraigosa ultimately declared it passed.

The DNC followed up with a statement that Obama supported the new language, a small but marked rhetorical break from the past several presidents’ position that Israel’s capital should only be resolved in peace negotiations between Israelis and Palestinians.

There was a bit of shouting, but this was a minor matter, as Daniel Seidemann explains nicely:

It has become politically suicidal to refrain from declaring loyalty to an undivided Jerusalem in which no one, save the ignorant and the true believers on the fringes, genuinely believe. Parties, party platforms, and even Presidential candidates pander to what they, correctly or incorrectly, perceive to be “the Jewish vote,” advocating policies – like transferring the U.S. embassy from Tel Aviv to Jerusalem – that no responsible president, regardless of party, will carry out. The discourse on Jerusalem within the political arena in the United States is a charade, and all but the deluded and the devout know it.

At the same meeting the platform committee decided to add the word “God” in their platform after all, explicitly. The Republicans had been complaining and sneering. Fine – it couldn’t hurt. It was a slow day.

But it did have its moments:

Women’s health advocate Sandra Fluke – who came to national prominence when Rush Limbaugh called her a “slut” and “prostitute” earlier this year – argued that the choice between President Obama and Mitt Romney was a choice between “two profoundly different futures that could await women” in her speech… Electing Mitt Romney, Fluke said, would mean a future that looks like an “obsolete relic of our past.”

This was particularly forceful:

In that America, your new president could be a man who stands by when a public figure tries to silence a private citizen with hateful slurs – a man who won’t stand up to the slurs, or to any of the extreme, bigoted voices in his own party. It would be an America in which you have a new vice president who co-sponsored a bill that would allow pregnant women to die preventable deaths in our emergency rooms. An America in which states humiliate women by forcing us to endure invasive ultrasounds we don’t want and our doctors say that we don’t need.

There was also the killer-closing:

In Obama’s America, Fluke said, “our president, when he hears a young woman has been verbally attacked, thinks of his daughters – not his delegates or donors – and stands with all women. And strangers come together, reach out and lift her up. And then, instead of trying to silence her, you invite me here – and give me a microphone – to amplify our voice.”

She nailed it, as did Elizabeth Warren:

Elizabeth Warren delivered a trademark full-throated defense of working Americans against what she said are Republican plans to make the economic ladder much harder to climb for members of the middle class.

Warren took direct aim at Mitt Romney in her speech Wednesday night at the Democratic National Convention. But another Massachusetts Republican – the one she’s running against for Senate this fall – went unmentioned.

She didn’t need to mention Scott Brown:

Returning to the theme that made her a Democratic Party star, Warren said America’s working class and middle class are on the ropes – and Republicans are ready to land the knock-out blow.

“I’m here tonight to talk about hard-working people: people who get up early, stay up late, cook dinner and help out with homework,” Warren said…. “People who can be counted on to help their kids, their parents, their neighbors and the lady down the street whose car broke down; people who work their hearts out but are up against a hard truth – the game is rigged against them.” …

“We’re Americans. We celebrate success,” Warren said. “We just don’t want the game to be rigged.”

She sees the problem is Romney and his party:

“The Republican vision is clear: ‘I’ve got mine, the rest of you are on your own,'” she said. “Republicans say they don’t believe in government. Sure they do. They believe in government to help themselves and their powerful friends. After all, Mitt Romney’s the guy who said corporations are people. … No, Gov. Romney, they’re not people.”

She’s been saying such things a long time, but the curious thing is that Andrew Sullivan, who loathes this woman, was won over:

10.18 pm. So far, I’ve been pleasantly surprised by Warren’s autobiography – and she’s gaining momentum with her accounts of middle class struggle: “the system is rigged.” Now, a good bash at the bankers – and tax evaders. And the tone is right: “We celebrate success. We just don’t want the game to be rigged.”

10.24 pm. That will be the pull quote of the night: “No, Mr Romney. Corporations are not people.” Then she kinda got carried away. But it was juicy red meat – from someone who looks like a school librarian in a wind tunnel.

10.28 pm. She’s winning me over. Now Matthew 25:40. But the passage is a command to each of us individually, not collectively. And that’s the debate. Where she’s strongest – and where this night has had a smidgen of a point – is on making bankers play by the same rules of the game as teachers, janitors or small business-owners. It’s that equality of opportunity that our increasingly unbalanced economy is threatening.

Sullivan may not like her, but he finds she makes sense. That’s something. Still, Sullivan called it an almost painfully bad night of speeches:

The base-ralliers turned off the independents and the middle-American union members and businessmen were so boring I can’t imagine they broke through to many. But they weren’t aiming at me or the pundits, I guess.

But then things changed. Noah Millman was wrong about Bill Clinton, as Talking Points Memo reports:

Bill Clinton offered an impassioned defense of President Obama as a leader in the mold of his own image Wednesday night, praising him for rescuing an ailing economy even as Republicans sought to thwart him at every turn. Mitt Romney has tried to position himself as Clinton’s heir in recent months, employing a false claim that Obama gutted Clinton’s signature welfare reform bill, comparing the two presidents on jobs and claiming he’d follow Clinton’s lead in working with the other party.

Clinton made clear that there was only one candidate in the race who embodied his values.

“If you want a future of shared prosperity, where the middle class is growing and poverty is declining, where the American dream is alive and well and where the United States maintains its leadership as a force for peace, and justice, and prosperity, in this highly competitive world, you have to vote for Barack Obama,” he said.

Mitt Romney is not Clinton’s heir. That was bullshit, as was much else:

His remarks took dead aim at the heart of Romney’s campaign theme: that whatever bad hand Obama was dealt in 2009, today’s unemployment figures belong to him. Romney’s case, Clinton said: “We left a mess. He has not cleaned it up fast enough, so put us back in.” …

“No president – no president – not me, not any of my predecessors, no one could have fully repaired all the damage that he found in just four years,” Clinton said. “He has laid the foundations for a new modern successful economy, a shared prosperity, and if you will renew the president’s contract, you will feel it.”

Clinton was in full attack-mode and didn’t let up:

Romney often cites Clinton as a model of bipartisanship he’d look to follow. But Clinton defended Obama for trying to work with a Republican Party that never intended to return the favor. Clinton invoked Mitch McConnell’s famous declaration that the GOP’s No. 1 goal was to deny Obama a second term.

And if the audience needed further proof that Obama is willing to work with his own opponents, he asked them to look at how many Clinton aides are in the White House despite Obama’s primary fight with another Clinton.

“He even appointed Hillary,” Clinton said.

There was more:

Clinton flatly decried Romney’s claim that Obama “gutted” work requirements in his welfare law as a lie, saying the issue “is personal to me.”

“Romney’s pollster said, ‘We are not going to let our campaign be dictated by fact checkers,'” Clinton said. “Finally, I can say, that is true.”

It seemed other things were true too:

Clinton slammed Romney as the latest in a long line of so-called small-government Republicans who he battled as president and who exploded the deficit under GOP administrations. “The Romney plan fails the first test of fiscal responsibility: The numbers do not add up,” he said.

Romney’s budget combines ambitious goals for a balanced budget with few details on where he would cut spending or how he would pay for a 20 percent cut on income tax rates. Clinton warned that Romney’s promises would either require him to gut federal spending or, more likely, cut taxes for the rich yet again without ever offsetting the cuts elsewhere.

“We simply cannot afford to give the reins of government to someone who will double down on trickle-down,” he said.

As for Obama, his plan “cuts the debt, honors our values, brightens the future of our children, families and nations,” Clinton said. “It is a heck of a lot better. It passes the arithmetic test – and it passes the values test, far more importantly.”

There was more but this is telling:

As Clinton ended his address to thunderous applause, Obama himself walked onstage, bringing to life the exact image his speech was meant to convey: Clinton and Obama, side by side, undeniable partners in the same fight.

Actually it was Kirk and Spock together on the bridge of the Enterprise. Clinton’s actual words – “I want to nominate a man cool on the outside but burning for America on the inside.” That was Kirk endorsing Spock.

Sullivan was following all this in real time:

Clinton is now telling Americans he has worked with Republicans in the past and liked them. He is telling the independents that the current Republicans are different – they are hateful, angry, and partisan all the way down. For a man impeached by Republicans to say they hate Obama even more than they hated him is quite something. …

If this election is about who can best compromise, it’s over. Obama has tried to bring people together – including his former rivals. And the GOP has from the very beginning refused to do anything with this president but plan to defeat him. For Bill Clinton to use the example of Hillary to illustrate Obama’s capacity for magnanimity and compromise is a very Bill Clinton coup de grace. …

Clinton’s summary of Republican malfeasance these past four years is simply liberating. Liberating because it is true: their moral and intellectual and political degeneracy is our biggest challenge…

Now he’s telling people exactly how the GOP tried to kill the recovery after 2010 by blocking a second stimulus and slashing budgets at the state level. Now touting the auto workers. And the new mileage standards. And a domestic energy boom. And better student loans. He’s making it real. Have you lost count of the number of times he said, “Now, listen …” We are. He’s telling a story that Obama has so far failed to tell effectively. …

Republicanism today is failed arithmetic. Clinton is really bringing this home – intellectually. It is not a series of platitudes; it is a series of arguments rebutting last week’s entire convention arguments. It has far more policy substance than Romney’s or Ryan’s speeches. And it has the added benefit of being true….

How do you follow that? With the Barack and Bill hug and wave. I believed Clinton’s speech would be the make-or-break speech this week – and he made it.

Sullivan wasn’t alone. Time’s Joe Klein was impressed:

I can’t think of any politician who talks as good as Bill Clinton. Certainly, no politician has ever been able to unpack and explain dry, complicated policy nuances in as juicy and entertaining a manner. The folks at Fox were speculating that the speech was overly wonky and maybe a lot of people got bored and turned off their televisions. Wishful thinking, no doubt. That’s what they always said about his epic State of the Union filibusters – and they were always wrong. People like listening to this guy. He’s informal, and informative, in a way that Obama, sadly, has never been able to be – otherwise the folks would have known all that good stuff about the health care plan, and the stimulus plan. But then, Obama’s in good company: as I said, Clinton’s the most compelling policy wonk I’ve ever heard. And there is no second place.

Will Wilkinson adds this:

As for form, no living political figure can match Mr Clinton’s rhetorical ear, improvisational liability, or daemonic audience connection. As for content, Mr Clinton’s typically overstuffed address packed in more policy detail than the entire GOP convention, all while maintaining a coherent narrative thread. A few tendentious points aside, it was a masterful speech which redeemed an otherwise embarrassing night for the Democrats.

Chris Cillizza is on board too:

He was the explainer-in-chief without seeming too preachy. He was full of Southern aphorisms without being hokey. And, perhaps most importantly of all, Clinton was quite clearly having a very good time – and he let it show. He ad-libbed. He played with the crowd. He smiled and laughed. And, yes, he went on a little too long. But, if you are a student of campaign politics – like we are – what you watched tonight was the work of someone with massive natural ability in the political arena.

Michael Tomasky adds this:

Holy smokes! That was the best political speech more or less ever. There wasn’t a thing he didn’t touch on, and there wasn’t a thing he didn’t just blast out of the park.

Maybe so, but Andrew Sprung sees the real purpose of this speech:

Well, it took Bill Clinton a long time to get to the heart of his speech. But what a mighty heart it proved to be. What a giant enterprise. He set himself singlehandedly to counter a billion dollars in attack ads, to break through the core Republican lies and obfuscations.

Mission accomplished, as they say. And the guidelines were followed. Day One, grab them with the hook. Day Two, lull them with the details of what is happening and why, and hope they don’t doze off. Day Three is when you’re supposed to amaze them, and maybe Bill Clinton did get there early. Or maybe he was teeing up something even more amazing. But really, the Republicans should take note. This is how it’s done. Read the Paramount memo.


About Alan

The editor is a former systems manager for a large California-based HMO, and a former senior systems manager for Northrop, Hughes-Raytheon, Computer Sciences Corporation, Perot Systems and other such organizations. One position was managing the financial and payroll systems for a large hospital chain. And somewhere in there was a two-year stint in Canada running the systems shop at a General Motors locomotive factory - in London, Ontario. That explains Canadian matters scattered through these pages. Otherwise, think large-scale HR, payroll, financial and manufacturing systems. A résumé is available if you wish. The editor has a graduate degree in Eighteenth-Century British Literature from Duke University where he was a National Woodrow Wilson Fellow, and taught English and music in upstate New York in the seventies, and then in the early eighties moved to California and left teaching. The editor currently resides in Hollywood California, a block north of the Sunset Strip.
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