Committee Of Correspondence

The Democratic National Convention

Alan Brinkley
9:17 a.m.  Wednesday   8/28/96 

       A curious night in Chicago. The most highly-charged moments–the Jackson and Cuomo speeches (not their best, but better than anyone else so far) were out of prime time–although the networks later showed some excerpts. The critical 10 to 11 hour began with considerable excitement–the fact of Hillary Clinton’s speech as much as the substance of it–and ended with a workmanlike keynote by Evan Bayh that sounded like a Clinton campaign press release. You could actually hear the audience filing out. It was almost as if the convention was scripted to move from its highest point to somewhere near its lowest, rather than the other way around. Perhaps that should not be surprising, since the man in charge of orchestrating this meeting is the same man who produced the dullest Tony Awards show in memory last spring.
       Mrs. Clinton’s speech was not as dazzling as Mrs. Dole’s performance in San Diego, but it did present her as a committed, articulate, and reasonable woman and not the shrill harridan that her more strident critics try to portray. It also offered a pretty good answer to Dole’s rather mean-spirited attack on the It Takes a Village idea–which, far from being a menacing vision of collectivism is an almost banal invocation of the kinds of things Republicans have been saying (and monopolizing) for years.
       I was also struck in the course of the evening by the consistent efforts to portray President Clinton–whom even his most [ardent] admirers sometimes describe as an equivocator without backbone–as a heroic leader standing alone against overwhelming odds. There is something striking, I think, about hearing people of such diverse views (including some who strongly disagree with him on many issues) speaking of him with respect and occasionally even awe. I can’t recall a convention in which a candidate has drawn such fervent support from across so large a political spectrum–from the Bradys to Jesse Jackson–all at once. I suspect in the end that will be the thing that helps him most this week: the repeated use of heroic imagery to combat a counter-image of weakness and vacillation. (It’s also what helped Dole the most in San Diego.) Still largely missing, though, are the really rip-roaring attacks on the Republicans and the Contract and the Dole tax plan. Tonight perhaps? Christopher Caldwell
9:30 a.m.  Wednesday   8/28/96 

       Evidence that the Democrats are presenting themselves as centrists (even rightists) was all over the place Tuesday: They slotted Jesse Jackson and Mario Cuomo, superstar convention orators for two decades, out of prime time. Jackson declined to attack the welfare bill and Cuomo invoked the balanced budget. In prime time, Hillary Clinton referred, helpmeet-like, to “my husband” and “family values.” Harvey Gantt wrapped himself in the flag. Carolyn McCarthy talked tough on crime. Evan Bayh, wretchedly delivered though his speech was, got the keynote in the first place for his DLC Democrat credentials.
       Most significantly, Tipper Gore is once again proud of her record of urging rock censorship, something she hasn’t touted since before the 1992 campaign. Also interesting is that someone sent Tipper up there to talk about “civil society” without explaining to her what civil society means. (She seems to think it means “polite society.”) Only Victor Morales–and what a demagogic twerp he is–held aloft the banner of bilingual education and Pell grants.
       Not that any of this moderation is heartfelt. What Democrats are doing is yoking their long-held sense of moral superiority (which they can’t help) to the Republican vocabulary (which they think is a winner). In an age in which “to focus-group” has become a verb, it was probably inevitable that before long each party would start printing off the other’s boilerplate.
       But the convergence is worrisome. The religious right’s moral agenda was always less frightening because it came with a distrust of government. The left’s activist-government agenda was always less frightening because it came with a distrust of moral agendas. “Centrist” Democrats are marrying some of the worst elements of both. Karlyn Bowman
1:31 p.m.  Wednesday  8/28/96 

       During prime time, the Democrats are certainly trying to project the image of themselves as centrists. Was Tipper Gore really talking about rock music lyrics in the way she did years ago before she was silenced by the more liberal elements of the party?
       I liked hearing the fire-and-brimstone oratory of Jesse Jackson once again, though the speech was predictable. Jackson looked old for the first time, I thought, but maybe that’s because I’m older. Mario Cuomo has a tendency to sound like a scold, which he did again last night. Keynoter Evan Bayh didn’t live up to expectations, but then people said the same thing about Bill Clinton eight years ago.
       It’s been interesting to watch the public react to Hillary Rodham Clinton over the past four years. Gallup said early on that she was one of the few first ladies about whom there were strong partisan differences. She began with high favorable ratings, though not as high as Elizabeth Dole’s are right now. People thought (and still think) that she is a positive role model. It is hard to pinpoint exactly when her image started changing. Sometime during the revelation of her commodities trading activities and the development of the health-care bill, opinion began to become more negative about her. People said for the first time that she put her own interests ahead of the country’s. In the past six months as the president’s ratings have been inching upward, hers haven’t moved and are almost evenly divided, positive and negative. Will her speech improve her public opinion standing? Perhaps it will in the short run, but my guess is that the final judgment on her will be decidedly mixed.
       People made up their minds early about Bill Clinton’s character, and the judgment was negative. They have now moved on to evaluate the presidency. The judgment on Hillary Clinton has been longer in coming. Two polls in the past week have shown that people think Elizabeth Dole is better suited to be first lady than HRC, by rather decisive margins. Herb Stein
1:49 p.m.  Wednesday  8/28/96 

       As Chris Caldwell says, Tuesday was centrist day, with a slight list to the right. He refers to several speeches. I rely on the music. As soon as I saw and heard a white male quartet singing George M. Cohan patriotic songs, I knew we were on the right track. That reminds me. When Bill Clinton on the train keeps saying that they are on track to the 21st century, does he mean they are on the right track? And is there any way to get off the track to the 21st century?
       Brinkley says Jackson and Cuomo’s speeches were the most highly-charged moments. True. They were so highly charged they blew my circuits and I couldn’t make out what they were saying, or at least what the relevance was. I think Hillary did what she had to do. She gave a defensive speech, showing that she is not the Queen of the Night. She is a modern, working woman and wife who is also something Elizabeth Dole is not–a mother. Should we take her agenda seriously? Mandating leave for workers to take their dogs to the vet? Would a second Clinton Administration want another go-round with a Hillary Clinton health-care plan?
       The use of the word “family” in the two conventions is interesting. The Republican family is the nuclear family–the Brady Bunch. The Democratic family, as explained by Christopher Reeve and Hillary Clinton, is the nation. Analysis of the implications of that would be interesting, but we won’t get it from this convention or this campaign. I suspect that in the end the parties are not far apart on the policy consequences of these rhetorical differences. Alan Brinkley
2:14 p.m.  Wednesday  8/28/96 

       In response to the moderator’s comment that he couldn’t understand the relevance (or the content) of the Jackson and Cuomo speeches: He’s right, I think, that both speeches bordered at times on the incoherent, perhaps because of the rhetorical legerdemain required of both as they attempted to make criticisms sound like tributes. But I have no doubt what the relevance was: to make clear to the party’s liberal wing that their icons are fully on board with the Clinton campaign despite the welfare-reform proposal. That, in fact, has been one of the principal messages this convention has tried (I think largely successfully) to convey: that Clinton can veer right on hot-button issues, disappoint the Democratic left, and still have everyone’s full support. I would not have predicted at the time the president agreed to sign the welfare bill how little political cost (and how much political gain) he would reap from the decision; but whether or not signing the bill was good policy, it is certainly turning out to be good politics.