QUICK THOUGHTS ON OBAMA’S SPEECH

To choose a favorite talking head buzz phrase, I think Barack Obama did what he had to do tonight. And he did it quite well.

First, closing a convention that erred too far on the side of nice (that means you, Mark Warner), Barack Obama came out swinging against John McCain, and I think he managed to do it in a way that’s hard to characterize as “nasty” or “shrill” or “too angry,” unless you’re one of the people who characterizes Democrats that way for a living. He crossed that threshold John Kerry or Al Gore never quite did, where you take on political opponents with a toughness that suggests you could take on enemies as President. And he maintained his sense of humor while doing it.

Second, Obama also addressed the imaginary lack of specificity in his policy proposals (the only thing more imaginary may be the desire among voters to hear specifics of policy proposals) by laying out a series of them (including improvements to the bankruptcy law that his running mate helped worsen). He had to do it; it’s good that he did. But it’s an especially silly expectation coming from a press corps that lets John McCain continue praising himself for having championed policies he currently opposes. It’s a good sign that the speech gets compared to a State of the Union address (or is that too presumptuous!).

Third, Obama talked about his own story, not in the linear way he has in the past and others have at this convention, but by explicitly comparing experiences in his life to experiences of Americans he’s met. Of course it’s sad that he has a higher bar to clear here than would a White candidate. That said, he did a compelling job connecting Americans’ stories and his own and explaining how they inform where he’ll take the country.

And the uplift was there too.

As for the disappointment, of course some of the self-consciously non-that-kind-of-Democrat stuff (are we reinventing government again?) is bothersome.

And in a speech that was more aggressive than we’ve come to expect from Democratic nominees, there was some needless defensiveness. If you’re going to talk about the importance of fatherhood, why say it’s something we “admit”? Aren’t you undercuttng yourself? Why say “Don’t tell me Democrats won’t defend America,” as though you concede that that’s the perception – and why respond to the criticism you brought up by naming presidents from forty years ago? Obama seems unable to help himself from rehearsing potential counterarguments in a way that doesn’t really help him – as in “Some people will say that this is just a cover for the same liberal etc…” And I think Obama made himself seem a little smaller when he followed talking about the struggles his family has overcome by protesting that he’s not a celebrity. Finally, while he effectively seized the high ground on patriotism, it seems overly restrictive for Obama to say he won’t suggest that McCain takes his policy positions with any eye to political expediency – I hope he doesn’t really mean that part, which would seem to leave John Kerry’s “Senator McCain v. Candidate McCain” line of attack off limits.

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WARNER WON’T

So what does Mark Warner bowing out of the ’08 race mean for the prospects of a left Un-Hillary versus a right Un-Hillary come primary season?

On the one hand, having Warner out of the running allows for a consolidation of the right-of-Hillary forces in the party behind one of the remaining right-of-Hillary candidates – the strongest of whom looks to be Evan Bayh (sorry, Joe). If he isn’t gunning to be on Clinton’s ticket, Warner can take harsher shots at her now that he’s not a candidate himself, and he’s developed something of a base to throw behind Bayh.

On the other hand, Warner was probably the stronger of the right-of-Hillary contenders. Unlike most of the Democrats in contention, his experience is executive rather than legislative, which both builds credibility with a certain crowd and makes it easier to straddle certain ideological razors that Senator Bayh is more likely to slip on. And his business experience helps pry certain networks and wallets open that a right-of-Hillary candidate in particular will depend on. Warner in particular was probably best situated to compete in terms of star power and red state outside the beltway cred with John Edwards, who is gathering more and more of the left-of-Hillary energy behind himself.

So Warner’s exit seems likely to leave the right-of-Hillary crowd more unified but behind a weaker contender. Which in the end I suspect is good news for the left-of-Hillary crowd. And therefore bad news for her. Which in turn is bad news for the other side of the aisle.

THE SILENT PRE-PRIMARY

The past few weeks, with Hillary Clinton’s formal acceptance of the Democratic party endorsement for Senate and an ensuing wave of articles about her politics and personal life, have brought speculation about the Democrats 2008 primary and the role that she will play in it. The emerging conventional wisdom consensus of today seems to be that she’s much less popular with party activists than was assumed in the conventional wisdom of yesterday, but that denying her the nomination would require an “Un-Hillary” capable of clearing the field of other viable aspirants and gathering together the disparate constituencies that don’t want to see her as the party’s standard-bearer in the next Presidential election. What the pundits seem to disagree about or, in many cases, ignore entirely, is whether that alternative candidate will come from the left or from the right of the Democratic party.

Since pundits and party hacks are likely to force the narrative of the coming primary into either a “Hillary versus the Un-Hillary” mold or a “Hillary versus a slew of guys” one – the latter of which pretty much secures her the nomination – who emerges from the primary will turn in some significant part on how the part of “Un-Hillary” is scripted. What kind of candidate the “Un-Hillary” is supposed to be will help determine who gets to seize the mantle and get the attention and the activists that make it possible to win. And what kind of candidate the “Un-Hillary” is supposed to be will depend in good part on who Hillary herself is perceived to be: the ostensible feminist firebrand committed to subversion of culture and nationalization of industries, or the hawk who’s proud to have voted for the war and wants government to regulate video game content more and credit card interest rates less. Evan Bayh and Mark Warner are running against the former; Russ Feingold and John Edwards are running against the latter.

So while the ostensibly-right-of-Hillary majority of Democratic presidential aspirants are each other’s immediate competitors for the right-of-Hillary niche, they are also allies in working to ensure that Hillary is seen as a left-winger who could be stopped by a right-of-Hillary “Un-Hillary” and not a right-winger who could be stopped by a left-of-Hillary “Un-Hillary.” The opposite is true of the minority of Democratic presidential aspirants who are gunning to run to her left.

Which camp will get the Hillary they want? The right-of-Hillary folks still have the media largely on their side, in that even the increasingly publicity around her moves to ban flag-burning and such still frames these acts as feints to the right by a unreconstructed liberal with the political savvy to disguise herself (this coverage often pivots around the myth that “Hillarycare” was a solidly left-wing proposal). The left-of-Hillary folks have Clinton herself on their side – both the conservatism of her record on the issues that divide the party and the intensity of her campaign to highlight her centrism. Judging by the approach she’s taken (with exceptions on some votes on seemingly forgone conclusions, like Bush’s nominations), as well as the comments of her advisors, she seems much more concerned with protecting herself from the right-of-Hillary competitors than from the left-of-Hillary ones.

Last month, Jonathan Chait noted the bind Clinton is in: “instead of moderates focusing on her positions while liberals focus on her persona, the opposite seems to be happening.” The logic of her circle seems to be that her gender, her rhetoric, and the relentless multi-decade assault on her from the right will be enough to secure the support of the left even as she offers policies to woo the center and beyond. If she succeeds, then progressives will be confronted not just with the comparatively conservative Clinton as frontrunner but with the comparatively conservative Clinton as the leftie of the crop of frontrunners. But given the increasing anxiety about her amongst the Democratic base, there’s reason to hope she won’t.

PIN THE TAIL ON THE ELITE

There’s a lot that could be said about Matt Bai’s NYT Mag profile of Mark Warner, which unsurprisingly says as much about Bai as about Warner. Bai’s faith in the conservatism of the average American, and the culpability of the uber-rich liberals in wrecking the Democrats’ appeal, will be familiar to anyone who read his chiding critique of Jacob Hacker and Paul Pierson’s book for considering structural obstacles to Democratic resurgence when the problem was obviously those liberal Hollywood celebrities and crazed bloggers stopping the party from offering Americans what they actually want. What struck me most on reading the article was the way that Bai’s choice of anecdotes reinforces his narrative – which may also be a reflection of Warner sharing anecdotes that reinforce a similar one.

Bai notes Warner’s plans to reform Medicare and his “embrace of free trade,” as things which will antagonize that infernal liberal elite, even though, as his readers may recall from the 2004 election, the party’s coterie of fund-raisers and policy wonks and strategists and spin-meisters are not known for their support for including labor standards in trade agreements. Warner’s belief that eroding entitlements in the solution to global competition seems more likely to put him on a collision course with the low-income voters who depend on our social insurance net and who’ve borne the burden of neoliberal trade policy. But there’s no gesture towards such a confrontation in Bai’s piece; instead we get an anecdote about his being hectored by elitist liberals at a Bay Area dinner party:

Warner thought his liberal guests would be interested in his policies to improve Virginia schools and raise the standard of living in rural areas; instead, it seemed to him, they thought that they understood poverty and race in an intellectual way that he, as a red-state governor, could not…as some of the guests walked Warner to his car, one woman vowed to educate him on abortion rights. That was all he could take. “This is why America hates Democrats,” a frustrated Warner blurted out before driving away. (Still piqued a month later, Warner, speaking to The Los Angeles Times, summarized the attitude of the assembled guests about their plans to save the country: “You little Virginia Democrat, how can you understand the great opportunities we have?”)

To read this story, and Bai’s article, you would think the only people to the left of Mark Warner are Bay Area elitists with cash left over from their brie purchases to distort the primary process. Of course, Matt Bai isn’t the only elite journalist committed to a vision in which his self-styled centrism is the will of the masses and those to his left are an insular elite. Michael Crowley, in a TNR piece on the tensions between Steny Hoyer’s more TNR-friendly war position and Nancy Pelosi’s, chose to describe Pelosi’s inner circle this way:

In addition to her top confidant, the combative Miller, others with Pelosi’s ear include Rosa DeLauro of New Haven; Anna Eshoo of Palo Alto; and Jan Schakowsky, a fiery crusader from Chicago’s upscale Lakefront area. All are critical of the war.

Now I’ve had the pleasure over the past four years of discovering all kinds of things for which New Haven should be nationally known. But it isn’t. Probably, as many TNR readers recognize Lakefront as New Haven. So Crowley could as helpfully written about “Anna Eshoo of Palo Alto, Jan Schakowsky of Lakefront, and Rosa DeLauro, whose New Haven, CT district represents a largely low-income constituency.” I’m curious why he decided instead to specify how “upscale” Lakefront is. But maybe that just makes me part of the reason people hate Democrats.