How Obama can be the un-Kerry in Denver

Three veteran Democrats game out the Democratic and Republican conventions. Beware of PUMAs!

Published August 22, 2008 10:51AM (EDT)

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It is a common lament that the Democratic and Republican conventions have become mere pageants, empty of content. But as Nate Silver of has shown, after crunching the numbers, the candidate who gets the biggest bounce in the polls from these pageants generally wins in November. On the eve of the Democratic National Convention, and of Barack Obama's announcement of his running mate, Salon asked three noted panelists what makes for a successful convention, how Democrats can avoid the pitfalls of John Kerry's convention, and what to do about those pesky Hillary Clinton supporters.

Michael Cohen is a senior fellow at the New America Foundation and author of a new book on presidential campaign speeches titled "Live From the Campaign Trail." Previously, he was the chief speechwriter for U.S. Ambassador to the U.N. Bill Richardson and Sen. Chris Dodd.

Elaine Kamarck was one of the founders of the New Democrat movement that helped elect Bill Clinton president, and served in the Clinton White House from 1993 to 1997. She was a senior policy advisor for Al Gore's presidential campaign in 2000, and has been a public policy lecturer at Harvard University's John F. Kennedy School of Government since 1997.

Chris Lehane served as Vice President Al Gore's press secretary both during the Clinton administration and during the 2000 presidential campaign, and is co-principal at Fabiani & Lehane, a California-based strategic communications firm.

Salon spoke to Cohen, Kamarck and Lehane by phone.

Thomas Schaller: We have a press expert and a policy expert and a speech-making expert taking part in this conversation. Let me start with the press expert. Chris, from your perspective, what does a press secretary's dream convention look like in terms of either good things that do happen or bad things that don't happen?

Chris Lehane: No. 1 is really having a disciplined program in place designed to drive your message. No. 2, to me, is always, what is going to be that one, indelible message visual that breaks through? In 2000, and this wasn't planned or programmed, but it ended up being perfect for us, it was Al Gore kissing Tipper Gore. And we used to joke that that was a 20-point kiss at the convention. And then the third thing I think is making sure that you do not end up with any problems that overtake your convention or that undermine your message, whether it's dissidence on the floor or someone giving a speech and saying something they should not have said, whether it's something coming up in terms of some scandal involving someone on the ticket or someone of a high level in the party.

Schaller: Elaine, Chris talks about the importance of getting your themes across. The media wants to talk about gossip and candidates and the speeches themselves and maybe not so much actual policy. How can candidates get core policy themes across in these four days amid the pageantry?

Elaine Kamarck: I always think of policy in political campaigns as the reality check, which makes the rhetoric and the good messaging real. And I think the importance of policy is really to bolster and make credible the kind of themes that I think Chris was talking about in terms of what you want to do at your convention. In other words, if you are simply up there saying repeatedly, "Universal healthcare," but you've never had a plan, you can say it until you're blue in the face, and you can have every Madison Avenue genius in the world making ads about it but if there's never been a plan put out there that people who know something about the issue say is somewhat credible, then your messaging is going to be undercut because you have an advertisement without a product.

Schaller: Michael, you've just written a book about presidential campaign speeches and have drilled down on a lot of these convention speeches. So I know you have a lot to say about it, but give us the formula for what makes a good and, I suppose, what makes for a bad convention speech.

Michael Cohen: I don't think it's necessarily a cut-and-dried issue. It depends a lot on context and also how the convention has gone. You know, it's funny, I was thinking about how Ronald Reagan's '80 convention speech was a great speech, but actually, there was also a great convention, where basically all four days played up the notion that Reagan was a different kind of conservative, Republicans were the party of change. And I'd compare that to 1988, which before George Bush gave his convention speech was kind of a disastrous convention. I remember the Tuesday was the day they introduced Dan Quayle as the V.P. pick and it was pretty much downhill from there. What Bush did in that speech was sort of reintroduce himself to the country. He was really able to cast himself in a much more positive light than he had been seen in for the previous eight years. And at the same time, I think he set the contrast between the two candidates for the election. And I think that's what any good speech really does -- it lays out, pretty much, what kind of individual you are, what kind of vision you have for the presidency, what your vision of your candidacy is, but at the same time creates a pretty strong contrast between you and your opponent.

Schaller: Four years ago, John Kerry decided that there wasn't going to be a lot of negativity in Boston at the Democratic convention. People criticize that all the time. All the speeches were scrubbed of any criticisms of Bush and Cheney, and I'm wondering, we've talked a lot about the affirmative, positive message -- how does a candidate use the convention to go negative and do it well and what are the risks of doing that?

Cohen: I think it's smartest not to do it yourself. I think one of the things that was so effective about Bush's campaign in '04 and also the convention, was that the harshest rhetoric came from [others] and that set up the negative attack on Kerry. But I think Bush, though he obviously had sort of a negative element to his speech, had a much more affirmative message, a much more clear message of what kind of president, what kind of administration we'd have the next four years than John Kerry did. Kerry was smart to stay on a positive message but also needed to contrast that with some negative attacks on the president.

Lehane: I think it somewhat depends on what your campaign's strategic theory is for the particular race that you're in. In 2004, Kerry was running against a president who'd already served four years. And historically, in such races, those campaigns inherently become a referendum on the four years of the president. The Bush folks recognized from Day One that if that was indeed what people were going to end up voting on in the fall, that they would lose. So their entire convention consisted of an overarching strategy that was to make the 2004 election not a referendum on Bush's four years, but a referendum on Kerry and his character. In my opinion, they did it very effectively. I think on Kerry's side, while they had a good convention, I think in terms of the tactical things they did, the disciplined nature of it, it ended up being a little bit of a cotton candy convention, where there really wasn't a lot there at the end of the day that left voters with a real sense of what direction they were going to take the country. And in particular, did not make it a referendum on the Bush years, which should have been the strategic imperative of that campaign.

I think in 2008 Obama has a little bit of a different challenge than Kerry faced in 2004, although clearly the McCain campaign recognizes that they are going to make this a referendum on Obama. But for Obama, he's a little bit like some of the vice-presidential candidates we've had in the past -- famous, but not necessarily well-known. With all the macro trends in this race favoring him and potentially manifesting themselves in a decent-size win, I think he needs to make people comfortable in who he is as the next president and the next commander in chief, and so to me a huge part of this is him ultimately giving folks a real vision of where he's going to take the country and who he is as a person and his leadership style.

Schaller: Elaine, is there a way for a candidate to make a policy critique of his opponent at the convention?

Kamarck: The one thing I was thinking of when you all were talking about this is that going into 2004 a lot of Democrats expected that the Democrat would win if by Election Day opinion against the war had changed. And one of the things that was kind of surprising was that by Election Day opinion was running against the war, not by a huge number but by slightly more than 50 percent, and yet Kerry lost.

I was at the 2004 convention and I was doing a lot of media and I took my instructions from the Kerry people to not attack Bush, and it just didn't feel right, OK? Bush was running a terrible war, things were screwed up, he'd gotten us into this war under what were certainly mistaken if not false pretenses, and frankly it just didn't feel right, the advice not to attack. And a lot of people kind of ignored it, but one or two talking heads can't make up for a thematic push at a convention. So, you know, maybe in retrospect the policy critique of the war could have been made much more strongly at the Democratic convention.

Cohen: They tried to go positive in '04, but I still think Bush did a better job at his convention of laying out a more positive image of himself than Kerry did. Even though that was the entire point of that convention, to give you a better sense of John Kerry. I don't think people walked away with that idea. I think that Obama's key goal for this speech is no longer change you can believe in, it's change you can feel comfortable with. And that really is what his biggest objective has to be for the speech at the convention.

Schaller: Let's talk about the Kerry '04 convention and Michael's point and raise the question of what can go wrong with a convention. We've mostly put up a prescription for how a convention goes well and what you're supposed to do. We know the '68 convention was a disaster for the Democrats, '92 was really rancorous for the Republicans, but in more recent ones, in this era of total control, what mistakes of omission or commission did you see Bush or Kerry or Al Gore make that if you had been in charge at the convention, you would have done differently?

Cohen: I have a hard time being too critical especially of Gore in 2000. I thought he was very effective at the convention. I thought Bush was even more effective, to be honest. I think what can get you out of control is when you don't present the best message possible for your candidacy and for your vision of the country. I think the Kerry '04 convention is the best example of that. And it's funny, I remember afterward, everyone said, wow, what a great convention that was. But in reality, they left themselves vulnerable by not really making the smart case against Bush. And it got us four more years.

Lehane: I think there are gradations of what can go wrong. In 2004 Kerry was not able to make the race a real compare-and-contrast, up-and-down referendum on the previous four years. And I think Elaine's point was exactly right, which was there was a pretty smart and compelling policy critique that could have been made, that would have been consistent with an appropriate tone but still making clear that this race was really about a vote on Bush's leadership.

In other times, I go back to 1996 [when the media exposed Clinton advisor Dick Morris' dalliance with a prostitute]. It was something the campaign really could not control because it involved the conduct of a high-level consultant, where you had a situation break on the first or second day of the convention. I remember being bombarded by about 3,000 press calls. It's a situation, the tinderbox situation you have at these conventions, where you have the largest collection of reporters outside the gathering in Beijing right now who are bored, who don't necessarily want to cover the party line of the day and are desperate for anything that allows them to go chase a story. We went through this in '96 with the Dick Morris situation and everyone covered it. I think the Clinton campaign still did a very effective job overall at the convention. But you do have that potential that something's going to develop that you have no control over.

Kamarck: The worst thing that can happen at a convention is that it can in fact turn into an actual decision-making convention. The worst thing that can happen at a convention is that it can be real. That is almost always a harbinger of bad things to come.

So 1968, the reason there was such turmoil was because the party was in a mess and they were making real decisions at that convention and they lost. In 1972, one of the reasons McGovern went on with his acceptance speech at 3 o'clock in the morning was because there was significant intra-party strife that had to be dealt with and they lost. In 1980, when Carter and Kennedy fought to a draw at their convention, the Democrats lost. In other words, whenever one of these conventions has real business, as opposed to being a show, that's really trouble. Which is why, of course, now in the last couple of weeks, I am sure that the Obama campaign and the Hillary campaign are working very carefully on this roll-call vote on Wednesday night, because there is the potential that there could be an embarrassment there depending on what Hillary delegates do.

Schaller: This brings us to the next question, which is, how much do you anticipate that Clinton supporters could be a serious problem for Obama at the Democratic convention? Are these PUMAs [Party Unity My Ass] and Just Say No Deal people a fringe element, and is it just going to be the media paying attention to them because there's a story there but, ultimately, Hillary Clinton and her people are sitting on them? Or could this spin out of control?

Kamarck: Because I was a member of the rules committee, I've been bombarded by these folks for some months now. And there are two or three major groups that send out massive numbers of e-mails each day with bizarre, unsubstantiated rumors in all of them.

I will tell you they feel like Republicans to me. The whole business smells like a Republican front. I've been through intra-party battles, Mondale and Gary Hart and Carter and Kennedy, I was in the middle of those battles and this is not the way Democrats fight each other. And so something's wrong here. Something's weird here. I don't quite believe it. Now if I get to Denver and there's a significant Hillary revolt, I'll have to eat my hat, but I think this is an Internet phenomenon. And it smells to me like a Republican front.

Cohen: I actually think this is a huge problem for Obama. I look specifically at the most recent poll from Ohio, which showed Obama's biggest weakness, his biggest problem there was actually among Democrats. About 17 percent of Democrats were not supporting him. And I think that could be a real problem for him and that's something that the convention can hopefully take care of. But I think a lot of the burden actually falls on Hillary to make peace to some extent with Obama and make sure this is as seamless and as frictionless a convention as possible.

I also think on some sort of bizarre level that it actually does suggest that a potential Hillary V.P. pick might not be the worst idea in the world.

Schaller: Chris, how do you manage PUMAs and Just Say No Deal people?

Lehane: I think, for some of the reasons discussed earlier, there is the potential for the press to jump all over these types of issues, even if, as Elaine argued, there may not be any substance. If they're there, if for no other reason than you have a large number of reporters who are looking and are interested in different story lines. So I think it is incumbent on the variety of entities to make sure that that does not happen. I think obviously, both the former president and Senator Clinton and I have complete confidence that they're going to do absolutely right by Obama and give very strong speeches in support of him. I think that helps set the tone. I think the Obama campaign will be keenly sensitive to making sure that the PUMAs of the world don't get the type of attention that otherwise would not be warranted.

But it is going to be a little bit of a tight-rope walk to ensure this does not become a bigger issue and I certainly think, and I have absolutely no inside knowledge or information, but I do agree with the comment that you need to step back and look at the convention and potentially see a strategy for the Obama campaign with Clinton as the vice presidential candidate, particularly given the amount of Clinton activity that is taking place at the convention particularly given the specific voters that he needs to win, to prevail in the fall. Again, I have absolutely no insider knowledge and think there's probably some strong argument about why you would not do that, but it's certainly worth considering.

Cohen: We agree that the bounce is an important element. I think that does sort of suggest that an Obama/Clinton ticket would be pretty effective. Because I have to think the bounce coming out of there from a Hillary pick would be enormous.

Lehane: Usually with a vice presidential pick, you would do it seven or ten days out from the convention in order to guarantee that you would really have two weeks of real estate that you're occupying with the media with your unfiltered message. The Obama campaign, and they're very smart, they obviously have run an extremely good campaign, have apparently made a decision to do it either late this week or this weekend, which again would suggest that they are potentially looking at doing something maybe a little bit differently.

Schaller: I think it's been a little too late. He could have used somebody to beat back some of these television commercials. Let's move forward. There's a big New York Times piece out this week saying Obama's the "other" and he has to deal with that, whether it's fair or not. People are concerned or don't know him and of course he's African American and has Hussein as his middle name. But we haven't talked about McCain. Does McCain have any imagery work to do? He's got the POW, national hero thing but is there anything he needs to accomplish in Minnesota that is maybe not of the same scale but comparable to what Obama's task is in Denver?

Kamarck: I'll take a shot at that because I watched with great fascination the whole Saturday night Obama/McCain presentation before the evangelical group led by Rick Warren. And I and the other Democrats who were watching this were a little bit nervous because prior to that the reporters that had been on the campaign trail with McCain had been talking about him as an old man – they were talking about him looking awful, sounding awful. All you heard from reporters was old man, old man. Well you know the guy who showed up Saturday night didn't look particularly old, he certainly wasn't dotty. Some Democrats who thought this was going to be a cakewalk once the debates happened, I think were kind of shaken by Saturday night. And if McCain can come off as solid and as firm and, frankly, as presidential at his convention as he did Saturday night and then keep that up through the three debates with no gaps in between, then this is a much tougher race than a lot of Democrats expected it to be.

Cohen: I think McCain actually has almost as much pressure on him as Obama has on him. Because if you look at his campaign to date what he's done is spend the last two or three months attacking Obama. He's been somewhat effective in raising Obama's unfavorables and sort of casting some doubt. But if you look at the numbers, what he really hasn't done is given people faith in John McCain as to why he would be a great president and actually, I think more important, what he wants to do as president.

McCain's got his negative narrative worked out pretty well, what he doesn't have is his positive narrative. Obama has a positive narrative -- and some people think he has too positive a narrative -- but McCain really needs to say something that gives Americans a clear sense of what his presidency would entail, what his positive message is for fixing the economy. I think the problem for McCain is his positive message is very much a foreign policy, security-oriented message, which was a great message four years ago. I'm not so sure it's a great message in 2008.

Lehane: I think McCain has to do a couple of things. One, and they're obviously doing this with the VP pick, is try to arrest any momentum or stymie any momentum Obama gets coming out of the convention. They're going to announce it on Friday the 29th, and that's obviously designed for them to get out there in a major way, they obviously have the benefit of the timing of their convention. So point number one, I think they're going to do everything possible to try to limit or diminish the bounce that Obama will get.

Second, very much like 2004, they are going to have a convention that is designed to try to make this a referendum on Obama and whether he is up to the job of being president. I think they have a much, much, much more difficult task of doing that in 2008 than Bush had in 2004, but I also think it's the only path that they have to ultimately getting there. And I think they have done it fairly well over the last couple of weeks and that's what their convention will do.

I think the third piece, and to me this is a lot less important than the first two, which is where I think I probably differ from the others, is connecting the personal courage he showed when he was a POW with the fact that he would be that type of president, someone who would bring courage to the job. But ultimately this race is about Obama, and I think McCain recognizes that, appreciates that and will do everything possible to create a convention that raises questions.

Cohen: I have to disagree a little bit there. There's no question that for McCain to be successful he has to create enough fear in people's minds about the Obama presidency. But we're talking about an election in which 75 percent, 80 percent of the country thinks we're on the wrong track, in which change is really the dominant issue, change and obviously the economy, so it seems to me that just to present Obama as this scary, other exotic figure will be effective with a certain percent of the population but I'm not so sure it's going to work so well with swing voters. I think they're going to want to hear something from McCain that's a little more positive than just the other guy is really bad. People always talk about Bush in '88 with Dukakis or Kerry in '04, but those were not really change elections.

To me, the best analogy is really '92 with Bill Clinton, who, in many ways, was a more flawed candidate than Barack Obama. Certainly, on personal issues. And if you remember that year's Republican convention, the campaign was really an attack on Clinton's inexperience, and how he didn't have proper family values and what have you, and that approach didn't work because people were very worried about the direction of the country. If McCain people think they can run a campaign just on attacking Obama, I think they're sadly mistaken. I think they're going to lose. I think they have to present some kind of positive message and I have not heard it yet from McCain.

Lehane: They're all really good and smart points and I absolutely hope that you're right. To me, and again, history can always help us a little bit, the question is, is this race 1980 or is this race 1988? To me it's a lot closer to 1980, which makes me feel good as a Democrat. The party out of power ultimately benefits from the macro trends, with people wanting change, once folks become comfortable with the candidate, in this case Obama, in 1980 the Republicans with Reagan. That's why I said earlier it's ultimately a very hard challenge for McCain to raise those questions at the end of the day, assuming Obama does a good job at the convention.

Having said that, there clearly are issues out there and there's a segment of the electorate, particularly white working-class voters and older women, those are the voters McCain has to get if he's somehow going to pull out an election that he should not win, and those folks are the type that historically do respond to negative messages. They're the type who respond to serious questions being raised if those questions are not beat back and those doubts are put in place. That's why I think at the end of the day, that's really the only hope that McCain has. I don't think it's much of a hope for the reasons we've all discussed, but that's why I do think they're going to have a convention created to try to push that narrative.

Schaller: That brings us to our final question. For each candidate, what's one thing he should do and one thing he shouldn't do?

Lehane: The big do for Obama is really to lay out that vision, that thematic about where he's going to take the country. His equivalent of what Clinton did in '92 with putting people first. I think if he does that he really puts himself in a position of having a really strong convention and getting the big bounce and going forward into the fall in a very strong position. I think the don't, the one I think they can control, is making sure the convention does not become a convention in which there are all types of messages but not something that adds up into that larger vision.

Kamarck: I think for McCain he simply has to show the country that he's not a dotty old man and that he is significantly different from George Bush. That they can trust him. And I think that if he does those two things, he may very well win this election. It's a question of being young and vigorous enough to lead and being different enough from George Bush that people can feel comfortable going with him and having their desire for change fulfilled.

I think with Obama it's a little bit more difficult. I think Obama has to show that his story is in fact an American story, and that's why you see so many of these Republican attacks on him have very little to do race and so much to do with foreignness. He has to craft his story very carefully as an American story and make sure that that is conveyed at every turn in this convention because I think he is the more adept, younger, energetic candidate. But he needs to get over that feeling that he's not quite American before the swing voters that Chris is referring to are comfortable going to him. I, by the way, am skeptical that if Hillary Clinton were on the ticket she could shore up those swing voters. They went to her in the primaries against Obama, but I have a deep suspicion that were she the nominee, it would be some of the same groups that would basically be arguing that she can't do it, oh she's a woman, et cetera. I'm not sure she actually delivers that vote, even though she won it in a contest against Obama.

Cohen: For McCain, I don't even know where to start. There's so much that he needs to do in his speech and in this convention. I think Elaine summed it up nicely: show that he's not an old man and show that he's different from George Bush. And good luck with that. That's going to be the objective, but I'm not sure how he does it. I think, as I said before, his major to-do is to lay out a positive message for his campaign, and to do it in such a way that separates him from George Bush. I'm not sure how that happens, but that's probably his top to-do.

As far as a don't, I'll act like a TV-addled American and say that he needs to avoid doing those little things he does that creep people out. He needs to not smile so much, not say "my friends" every other line. He needs to find a way to make himself seem more accessible.

And then for Obama, he will do all the things Chris suggested. He will give a great speech because he's a great orator, he'll have a great convention. If I was giving one piece of advice to Obama, I would almost say he needs to kind of relax a little bit and have some fun. He can come across as being a little bit more, I'll use Mark Penn's word, more human. I think he can talk about how his grandfather served in World War II and his grandmother raised him and his mother obviously. All those things that make him seem more accessible and approachable. I think also he needs to be a little looser frankly. And not sort of present himself with his chin tilted up and presenting himself as this sort of great Victorian figure.

Schaller: I'd like to thank all of our participants.

By Thomas Schaller

Thomas F. Schaller is professor of political science at the University of Maryland, Baltimore County and the author of "Whistling Past Dixie: How Democrats Can Win Without the South." Follow him @schaller67.

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