It’s going to be hard to watch the political conventions after the Olympics. We’ll have to switch from events with real drama and results to pageantry with neither. This is the political equivalent of hours of Michael Phelps celebrations with no actual swimming. Plus, there’s the fakery. The crowd shot of the audience at the GOP convention may look racially and ethnically diverse, but we know the party is less so. Barack Obama may promise not to engage in old-style politics, but we know he’s not lived up to his own standard all along the way and isn’t likely to in the future.
And yet at this year’s Democratic convention, one of the key dramas—the multiday Clinton-Obama reconciliation play—will require genuine acts of sincerity. Or, at least, as close to genuine acts of sincerity as we’re likely to get at a political convention. Without that, Obama will have to spend precious post-convention time—time he should spend engaging with John McCain—addressing this weakness in his coalition and distracting press stories examining it.
Here is how the sincerity exchange must play out: Barack Obama must make a sincere show of respect for Hillary Clinton so that she and her husband will make a sincere appeal to bring along those supporters of theirs who are still reluctant about Obama. There are hurdles. Bill Clinton clearly is still ticked that Obama’s allies painted him as a racist. Many in the Obama camp (including, perhaps, the candidate) think the Clintons have forgotten that they actually lost the primary.
There’s a premium on sincerity because Obama needs the votes of the wary Clinton supporters, and he needs the image of a unified party for the fall campaign. Hillary Clinton so clearly meant what she said about the unique strength of her own candidacy during the primaries that some of her supporters are pretty sure she can’t be sincere now when she says “elect Obama.” A recent Pew poll showed that 28 percent of Clinton supporters say they will not back Obama (18 percent intend to vote for McCain). As Leon Panetta, the former Clinton administration official asked by the Obama campaign to help with the reconciliation, put it to the Times of London: “There is a sense of entitlement that almost seems to be inbred. They are convinced Hillary is the one who should be assuming the mantle and it’s tough to crack that.”
While I still think the group Clinton needs to convince won’t have the impact on Election Day some would suggest, they are enough of a concern that Obama has gone out of his way to accommodate Clinton by allowing her name to be put in for a roll-call vote. Whether or not the so-called PUMAs (“Party Unity, My Ass”) reconcile Clinton loyalty with pulling the lever for Obama, or at least keeping quiet, the reconciliation must be ratified as sincere—by the press, anyway—so that the Obama team can get back to putting forward its message.
Conventions are usually concerned with an idealized presentation of the candidate. And there will be plenty of focus on the buff and shine applied to Obama. But this is the first convention since 1980 in which that can’t be the only show because a political party must add a cease-fire ceremony to the balloon drops. What does Clinton need to do to quell the doubts, given that she has been working hard to show her support for Obama—as yet to no real avail? It’s probably going to take more than raising her arms in unison with her former rival. In 1976, Gerald Ford made a show of unity with his former rival Ronald Reagan by interrupting his own acceptance speech. Ford spoke and then invited Reagan from his skybox down to the podium. That was clever, though, in the end, Ford didn’t pull through.
This time around, as in any good family-therapy session, each of the participants will have to do something that makes him or her uncomfortable. That’s often what it takes to make others think you’re sincere. Bill Clinton will have to behave, which means staying out of the spotlight and ceasing to seem so reluctant to say that Obama is prepared to be president. Mrs. Clinton will have to turn around women who see Obama as the man who waltzed in and took the prize from the hardworking, better-qualified woman. There are other reasons her supporters may not like Obama, but he has the potential to fix those—the unfair/sexism charge is one Hillary is best positioned to confront. Sen. Obama, for his part, could declare that he never thought the Clintons used his race against him. And Michelle Obama, who will play a central role in the convention, will have to find a showy way to embrace the former first couple, too.
Despite these challenges, my guess is that it’ll all work out. The Democratic Party wants to move forward to take the White House back. This gives the base good reason to bless a plausible show of sincerity as real. The Clintons can be good political performers, and they’ll know what to do. The former president knows that his apparent reluctance until now will make his endorsement of the heir apparent seem all that much grander—burnishing his image as well. He might even turn the charges of race-baiting that have been used against him on their head by heralding Obama’s candidacy as the final blow to the segregation he witnessed as a boy in the South. Barack Obama knows that he needs the Clintons, so he’ll do what’s necessary to earn the declaration that he was “gracious” and “magnanimous.” It will be in everyone’s interest to give a hug at the end of the Denver therapy session. Then we’ll just have to wait to see whether the voters buy the pledge of a new relationship.