The enthusiasm gap

By DAVID S. BERNSTEIN  |  September 3, 2008

McCain tried everything to blunt the building force of the narrative. He and his campaign team stoked the Clinton-rift stories as best they could, broke traditional protocol by running ads and breaking news during the other party’s convention, began their own narrative of leaking an ever-narrowing list of V-P “finalists,” and then made the surprise Palin announcement the morning after Obama finished his acceptance speech.

It was all a battle for control of the media cycles — a battle that will be waged right up to Election Day. McCain has lately been proving his skills at the game.

But Obama is no chump in this arena, and he masterfully harnessed all of the McCain and Clinton media coverage to build up his audience and to lead them through his well-planned four-day sequence.

However it worked out in TV land (and early evidence is that ratings were huge, reaction was positive, and poll numbers are up), the progression was effective inside the convention hall.

The relative absence of red-meat liberalism and Bush/McCain–bashing early in the week frustrated some party punditry — folks like James Carville and Paul Begala, who took their whining to the talk shows — but was extremely well-received by most delegates.

Those delegates came in worried that the Obamas would forever be seen as foreign, strange, and suspect by those “Middle Americans” who were refusing to declare themselves for Obama in summer polling. Monday’s family-oriented speeches — particularly Michelle Obama’s — gave optimism to black and white delegates alike.

Tuesday also disappointed the pundits — several of the speeches, including keynoter former Virginia governor Mark Warner’s, were duds — but accomplished something remarkable, perhaps something even the Obama planners hadn’t expected. The evening, highlighted by Senators Ted Kennedy and Hillary Clinton, provided a collective turning of the page to the new generation of leaders.

The effect of Kennedy on the convention was extraordinary (as his endorsement of Obama had been earlier this year). Rising from — I’ll say it if they wouldn’t — his deathbed to address his beloved party, the Liberal Lion told Democrats, and the country, to let go of their old leaders, like himself, and embrace the new: Obama.

Clinton’s decisive endorsement that same night punctuated the transfer.

That, and the resolution of the roll-call issue, liberated the convention for what delegates really love: bashing Republicans. Obama planned for it perfectly, assembling an All-Star lineup of sluggers with foreign-policy credibility: not just former Secretary of State Madeleine Albright, Bill Clinton, Senator John Kerry, and Joe Biden, but Command Sergeant Major Michele Jones; Congress’s only Iraq War veteran, Pennsylvania congressman Patrick Murphy; military wife Beth Robinson; three-star general Claudia Kennedy; and wounded helicopter pilot Tammy Duckworth. Such heavy artillery power now belongs almost exclusively to the left; since the Iraq debacle, the Bush/Cheney/Rumsfeld Republicans’ foreign-policy team is a discredited, powerless lot.

It was blistering, and effective — and that was just the warm-up.

Thursday’s relocation to the Denver Broncos’ stadium was a high-risk gamble, and everybody knew it. Like everything else during the course of the week, it ran smoother than anyone had a right to expect. What could have been awkward, cheesy, or overindulgent was simply celebratory.

After eight years of feeling like losers, Democrats let loose exuberantly for their candidate, their party, and their ideas.

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