DNC Day 3 Notes
September 6th, 2012

I said it in Tampa and I’ll say it again: In my own experience, at least, it’s very difficult to judge the political effectiveness of a convention from the inside. I can tell you how it plays to the room and I can give you some thoughts to what the stagecraft seems to suggest about how the candidates view the race. But as far as understanding how it will actually move public opinion? I don’t have much to say on that score.

With that in mind, I have the following tentative thoughts:

* This was a very conventional convention. Very different to 2008, which had a level of messianic insanity that, God willing, we’ll never see again. The rhetoric, message, and imagery of it were generic enough that you have dropped basically any generic Democratic candidate in and it would have worked more or less.

* To an enormous degree, this convention is a vindication of the clientelism thesis Jay Cost posits in his excellent book, Spoiled Rotten. Short version: Beginning with FDR, the Democratic party began to assemble its coalition not through ideology but through spoils. So it brought disparate groups together and gradually became a collection of client groups more than a coherent ideological enterprise.

The DNC explicitly broke people into 14 communities. And the convention’s over-arching catch phrase was, “We’re all in this together.” But it struck me that the subtext of that–maybe even the text–was that the “we” here isn’t “Americans.” It’s the “14 communities.” It’s the client groups. The message this convention was sending, I’d argue, was that We need to band together to keep our spoils. That’s why the first few hours of each night, before the prime-time broadcasts began, were devoted to subjects such as abortion, affirmative action, gay rights, unions, immigration, etc.

* The most interesting speech of the week, to me, was Elizabeth Warren’s. She made the case that the problem in America right now is that the system is rigged against the middle class. This is a powerful argument. It’s an argument against TARP and Goldman and too-big-to-fail and, when deployed properly, the most damning argument against Bain Capital. It’s a pro-family, crypto-conservative, populist pitch.

And yet, Warren was the only one all week mining this vein.

One of the enduring mysteries of the 2012 cycle is why at the moment when the environment is ripe for populism, we have two candidates who want no part of it. As someone quipped a couple months ago, only two politicians in America want to keep the big banks and the financial sector insulated from any systemic reforms. And both of them happen to be running for president.

* Bill Clinton gave the speech Paul Ryan should have made. In Tampa, with the exception of Chris Christie, no Republicans made anything like a sustained argument about the fiscal crisis America is in. There was almost no substantive policy talk. And so suddenly Bill Clinton became the first person to talk about the economy and sound like a grown-up. I just can’t understand why Republicans ceded that opening.

* There is something slightly weird about the conservative Twitter-sphere. Beginning yesterday, conservative Tweeters started harping on the DNC’s decision to move the Wed. session indoors. They got invested in saying the move was made out of fear of Obama not being able to fill the stadium. That struck me as wrong–the weather has been so bad this week and the optics of a wet, soggy session so awful that I absolutely would have made the same call.

And it turned out to be a good call. Because this afternoon around 3:00–when everyone would have been slogging through security and trying to get into the stadium–it rained like crazy for at least an hour. And all over Twitter conservatives were trying to suggest that it wasn’t really raining. It just makes no sense to me.

* Finally, Obama has absolutely nothing to say about what he will do in a second term. His entire pitch is backward-looking–that he needs to be elected as a barrier against the Evil Bad Republicans.

I’m not sure how much any of this will matter. We’ll see in a week.

Update: Oddly enough, Joe Biden seemed highly effective in spots–granting all of his built-in absurdities. He found a smart way to critique Bain Capital and took a Liz Warren-like aim at a populist message. Plus, he actually framed the re-elect case in a coherent way, but in a less data-driven manner than Clinton.

Listening to Obama (and having read ahead through his transcript) it’s not clear to me what he was trying to do. It’s a cautious speech that doesn’t do a particularly impressive job of either justifying his past performance or explaining why his project deserves to be seen through to another term. The only through-line I can see is a general justification of government itself and an appeal to the Democrats’ aforementioned client groups. It’s a missed opportunity.

Now that we’re just about wrapped up, my Best of 2012 speakers list would go: Christie, Condi Rice, Marco Rubio, Michelle Obama, Bill Clinton, and–heaven help me–Joe Biden. Your mileage may vary. Will any of these talks move the needle at all? Probably not.

Final Update: The more I think about it, the more I can’t believe Obama ended his speech with Hope. That strikes me as nearly insulting to his marginal ’08 supporters–he’s neither explaining why things didn’t turn out the way he promised nor changing his core message. He’s just asking them to sign up for more of the same with not even a changing the verb. Yet at the same time, this probably shouldn’t be surprising. It’s just one more sign of his narcissism that he seems to think voters will want more of the same Obama, despite how his tenure turned out. If you’re Barack Obama, everything your whole life has always worked out for you just because you’re you–so why would you change anything?

  1. Nedward September 6, 2012 at 11:59 pm

    The rain/stadium brouhaha was Drudge-fueled hype. As you point out the rote shrieking would have been gale force if it had poured on WGO and his delegates during the customary speechifying, well above USDA minimum for snark-content. Give the DNC credit for realizing (tardily) that 08’s Beatlemania strategy is beneath the ceremonial dignity of the office

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  3. Nedward September 7, 2012 at 3:41 am

    That was before I’d seen Jennifer Granholm’s mindless pep-rally elocution; it’s always awkward when the more aggressive team moms run out on the field to join the cheer squad

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  5. Jason O. September 7, 2012 at 9:51 am

    Credit where it’s due: Everyone is making a big deal about O’s self-equivalence to Lincoln…JVL was on that with “American Narcissus” what, 2 years ago?

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  7. “Vaporous” September 7, 2012 at 10:01 am

    […] JVL notes, this election is all about the core Democratic coalition ensuring that they continue receiving […]

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  9. Gabriel September 7, 2012 at 11:18 am

    I probably should read Cost’s book at some point. As I mentioned in my review of Social Structures, John Levi Martin describes political parties as originating as patronage schemes but I was skeptical that this still describes them in their current form. I’ve no doubt this is partly true, but I wonder how literally to take the “patronage” metaphor or whether this is just a rhetorical flourish on coalition politics.

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  11. Galley Friend J.E. September 7, 2012 at 11:38 am

    Three-fourths of the speeches were about how terribly we’re doing. Then the Obamas say we want four more years. Why are we even having this conversation?