Opening-night jitters

The DNC’s primary colors
By DAVID S. BERNSTEIN  |  August 28, 2008

HIDE THE PRIDE: As Michelle Obama addressed the Democratic National Convention Monday night, many in the crowd admitted to holding back their emotions in an effort to sell Barack Obama as a candidate who transcends race.

DENVER — The Democratic National Convention started off with a strange vibe that might be summed up in one word: restraint. Much is being pent-up here; emotions are being held in check.

One obvious aspect of this comes from the Clinton-Obama rift, which is real, though generally misunderstood. In truth, there are two very separate issues that have been conflated: the reticence of many Hillary Clinton voters to commit to pulling the lever for Barack Obama, and the inner tensions among the elites, insiders, and activists.

The first is politically important but not extraordinary, and has little to do with the mood here in Denver. Remember that millions of people who are not particularly party-oriented took part in the super-hyped Clinton-Obama primaries; many millions voted for Clinton for reasons that do not transfer readily to Obama. The vast majority will ultimately vote for him (some 80 percent already say they will), but many will not; the same would have been true had any other Democrat emerged from that race. (And the same is true among Republicans for McCain.)

But what’s affecting Democrats in Denver is quite different, and as old as politics. Politics is a game of alliances and power, which can have very crass effects on the psyche that — at the risk of sounding psycho-analytical — often gets masked with self-righteousness, self-pity, and/or misdirected anger. Four years on, for example, some Massachusetts political players are now able to talk (privately) about how much they had, despite themselves, mentally already packed their bags for the inevitable jobs waiting for them in and around a John Kerry administration; and how long the disappointment and finger-pointing distressed them and their political relationships.

In simplified terms, a lot of that is going on with the Clinton camp right now, and it has people on all sides walking on eggshells. Many Obama delegates, and even many former Clinton supporters, are outraged at the concessions being made to Hillary and Bill — but they won’t be caught dead saying so on the record. Clinton delegates are biting their tongues as well, aware that every display of support for their preferred candidate will be seen as sabotage, and will hurt the party’s chances of winning in November.

But the Clinton-Obama tensions are not the only ones contributing to this sense of restraint here. There is also a strange absence of the usual hostilities toward the other party — anger and outrage that every Democrat here feels over a hundred different pressure points, and that typically gets released in mass cultish frenzy on the convention floor.

Kerry made the mistake of minimizing the red-meat attacks at the 2004 convention. Perhaps that is contributing to the sense of uncertainty about how, and how much, to release that negative energy this year. More likely, Obama’s strategists are cautiously treading the waters, laying out the positive, “family-friendly” Obama introduction before moving into the attacks. In any event, the first day offered little cathartic assault on the hideous, outrageous abuses of the Bush administration, or on McCain’s record.

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  Topics: Talking Politics , Barack Obama, Elections and Voting, Politics,  More more >
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