Paul Nitze: Guest opinion
August 22, 2008
Denver has enjoyed some glorious weather over the last few days. Last night I caught My Morning Jacket at Red Rocks Amphitheater. Skies were clear, the stars were out, and a warm breeze kept frontman Jim James’s copious mane out of his eyes.
I’ve been noticing various other good omens as the Democratic Party prepares to take over the town. Hysteria about aggressive security and crowd control measures appears to be just that. Mistakes will be made, but for all the talk about the “Freedom Cage” and the temporary detention facility (nicknamed “Gitmo on the Platte”), the powers that be seem to have struck a fair balance between security and protesters’ First Amendment rights.
Count me among those who thought the Democratic National Convention Committee risked logistical disaster next week. A set of articles in the local and national press detailed the multi-million dollar fundraising shortfall for the convention. The chief volunteer organizer was unceremoniously booted, and a post-convention thank you party for volunteers was scrapped for lack of cash. Poor budgeting and unrealistic contract requirements pushed costs more than $6 million over budget. Meanwhile, Barack Obama telegraphed his anxiety about the convention by moving the main event out of the Pepsi Center, to Invesco Field, and by hustling a team of campaign staff to Denver on a triage mission.
So it’s with notable relief that I find most of these problems managed, if not solved entirely. Denver’s about as ready to host the DNC as it could be, no matter how good the planning. And even if there are glitches at the convention itself, there are so many events going on around the convention that you could turn the lights out at Pepsi Center and the delegates would barely notice.
When Sen. Obama takes the stage on Thursday evening at Invesco, all of the sniping and back-biting among protesters, city officials, and convention organizers will recede. Denver will have shown itself to have come a long way from the cow town that hoisted William Jennings Bryan to the top of the Democratic ticket in 1908. And Americans of many political persuasions will find themselves moved by what I don’t doubt will be a fine speech, and by the image of a black man accepting the nomination of a major party.
So why am I looking past next week, and the week after, to Sept. 5th? Because the conventions don’t matter much to this race. The past two weeks have seen the press speculate ad nauseum about the Obama veepstakes, and I’m sure that next week will show the McCain campaign milking the press for similar attention. Millions of Americans will tune in to watch Obama’s acceptance speech, and many of those will also watch McCain accept the GOP nomination in Minneapolis.
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In each case, the candidates will try their best to put a forward-looking, post-partisan spin on their party’s platform, and burnish their image as change agents. Unlike the 2004 conventions, which were harder-edged due to the freshness of 9/11 and the Iraq War, these will be more hopeful conventions. Americans know that no matter who gets the prize, we can look forward to better leadership than we’ve gotten lately.
But what many Americans may not realize is the ugliness that lies ahead. The Obama campaign has been off its game of late, with its poll numbers wilting and its candidate largely resisting the urge to go negative. Democrats are worried that Obama doesn’t have the moxie to stand up to the dark arts of the senior McCain operatives. They’re also worried that Obama can’t seal the deal: that he can’t seal the deal with Clinton supporters, with voters who have national security on the brain, and with low-income whites.
The good news is that most of those concerns have nothing to do with Obama’s dip in the polls. So far as I can I tell, most of the dip can be traced to two factors: High gas prices (which have allowed Republicans to make hay on drilling) and negative advertising. But the bad news is that one of those factors, attack ads, is about to get much worse.
If they aren’t already, Tony Rezko and Jeremiah Wright are about to become household names. If you think the McCain campaign and affiliated 527 groups engaged in race-baiting this summer, you haven’t seen anything yet. Upset that Obama and McCain would trade jabs about which one has the bigger real estate portfolio? Child’s play compared to what we’ll see in September and October.
In the early days of this race, many thought that an Obama/McCain match-up would yield a more civilized discourse, something close to what we imagine (wrongly) presidential politics used to offer. I fear that just the opposite is true. What we’ve learned this summer is that both candidates’ brands are pretty tough. McCain can go negative and cozy up to his base without doing too much damage to his status as “the original maverick.” Obama can switch sides on a half dozen major issues without diminishing the hunger of his most enthusiastic supporters for a win in November.
Accordingly, there’s little incentive for either candidate to pull his punches. Promises of civility from both sides will prove largely empty. Does Obama have the will and temperament to fight back? We won’t know until the mostly meaningless pageantry of the next two weeks has run its course. I’ll enjoy the convention, to be sure, but I eagerly await the answer.
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