Paul Nitze: No drama Obama
August 26, 2008
As the Beijing Olympics wound down last weekend, a different sort of Olympics is gearing up here in Denver. Its what might be called the personality Olympics. Starting with last nights speech by Michelle Obama, and continuing with tonights speech by Hillary Clinton, the Democrats will give their due to the gargantuan personalities at the center of the presidential race.Other leading lights of the party will speak as the week rolls on. Ted Kennedy, Al Gore, Nancy Pelosi, vice-presidential nominee Joe Biden all will get their turn under the spotlight. In this year of personality politics, however, two personalities placed far ahead of the other contenders. Although she comes into this convention with a national following, and the wind of nearly 2,000 delegates and 18 million votes at her back, Sen. Clinton had to settle for silver. When she speaks tonight, all ears will listen for any trace of bitterness at her defeat, and with what degree of force she will urge her supporters to back Sen. Obama.The Democratic Party has always represented a grab bag of interest groups, and different politicians within the party have always spoken for a particular set of interests. But that phenomenon has kicked into overdrive this year. Seizing the opportunity to cover people instead of issues, the media has abetted this development. And so we hear about individual politicians abilities to deliver various constituencies. Rather than probing where Sen. Biden stands on the issues, we heard reporters ask last week whether he could bring white Catholics into the fold.Sen. Obama brings the young, the coastal intelligentsia, African-Americans, the MoveOn rabble-rousers. Sen. Clinton brings Rust Belt whites, women of a certain age, pragmatists, the Baby Boomers. Now we watch to see whether these titanic personalities will come together at the Convention, as if diplomacy between their respective camps will unify the party this November.Unity has become the watchword of this Convention, repeated so often by party leaders that its become a sort of incantation. Expect to hear it out of the mouths of nearly everyone who speaks over these four days, and at least a dozen times during Sen. Clintons address. Open disagreement between the heavyweights at this Convention would not do the Party any good, and I very much doubt well see anything but carefully choreographed displays of intra-party harmony. But dont expect displays of unity, even if sincere, to do much good either.Personality has become the great distraction to Democrats in this race. The simple truth is that come November, those who supported Sen. Clinton in the primaries, but pull the lever for Sen. McCain, will do so for reasons that have nothing to do with perceived slights to Sen. Clinton. Theyll do so because theyre uncomfortable with Sen. Obama, too far from him in their backgrounds or too far from him on the issues that count. Nothing that Sen. Clinton says tonight will change that one whit. Only a tiny, and statistically insignificant, group of hard-core Clinton backers will risk losing the White House to prove a point.A personality-driven race is a race that Sen. Obama could well lose. But an issues-driven race is one that hes almost certain to win. I hope that when this Convention wraps up, the Democratic ticket has the chance to hole up in a hotel room with top advisers, put some popcorn in the microwave, and watch Primary Colors from start to finish.If you havent seen that modern chestnut, John Travolta plays Jack Stanton, a thinly fictionalized stand-in for Bill Clinton during the 1992 presidential race. The movies adapted from a novel written by Joe Klein, a reporter, who tried to conceal his identity by publishing the book anonymously. Klein (and Travolta) capture Clinton perfectly the ambition, the charisma, and the gnawing hunger for an empathetic connection with everyone in his path.What it also captures is how Clinton managed to turn the 1992 race into an issues-driven election, despite all the personal drama that swirled around him. Even as the media fixated on endless scandals Gennifer Flowers, Troopergate, the deals that would later come to be known as Whitewater Clinton hammered President Bush on the economy. The movie captures Clintons New Hampshire breakthrough, when he convinced workers whod been laid off due to jobs cuts in manufacturing that hed retrain them, providing them new jobs and new dignity.John McCain understands this dynamic perfectly. Notice that his attacks on Sen. Obama have been on Obama the personality, the celebrity. Rarely do they focus on any particular issue. If McCain can get away with running this kind of a race through the fall, rest assured that he will.So far the Democrats have played into his hand. On the other hand, if Obama can make himself boring, a workmanlike spokesperson for the myriad woes were experiencing on the homefront, he will win this race going away. Sen. Clinton can get the ball rolling tonight by making this point clear Forget about him, and forget about me, she should say. Remember that on the things that matter, theres not a hairs breadth between us.
Paul Nitze is a deputy district attorney in Adams County and has been a part-time Aspenite his entire life. Before attending law school, he worked as a legislative assistant to another part-time local, Sen. Dianne Feinstein (D-Calif.).