At the End of the Democratic Convention

We are at the midway point in the official launch of the 2008 election. One convention has ended, another is just beginning. I write from Denver, the site of the Democrat’s meeting; and as is always the case, this has been an exhausting and exhilarating week. The formal evening meetings of the convention were only part of the story. But what a story.

The emotional surprise appearance of Senator Edward Kennedy on the first day set the tone for the week. The "old warrior," under treatment for a malignant brain tumor, made the difficult and risky trip to Denver not to deliver a valedictory address, but to remind his party of the challenges ahead and spur them on.

Kennedy was followed by Michelle Obama, whose keynote remarks were necessitated by the campaign of vilification she has endured. She is an intelligent and forceful African American woman, who some have sought to caricature as a radical, out of touch with the mainstream. Since race, no doubt, played an important role here, Michelle Obama’s narrative (as a daughter, wife, mother and working woman) was an important reminder of just how American her story is.

Next on the agenda was the need to resolve eighteen months of a hard-fought campaign between Senators Obama and Clinton. The process began with Senator Clinton’s endorsement of Obama on Tuesday night, and was completed the next evening by President Clinton’s tribute to his potential successor. By the end of President Clinton’s speech it was clear that the Democratic Party is now led by Senator Obama, with Clinton acknowledging that the mantle of leadership had been passed.

Wednesday was also Senator Joe Biden’s day. In well-crafted remarks, the vice presidential nominee both reintroduced himself as a fighter for the common man and defined the differences between Democrats and Republicans on domestic and foreign policy.

Thursday was the actual lift-off of the campaign. It was a well-orchestrated political tour-de-force before 84,000 people, the largest political convention gathering in history. The night’s speakers included former Vice President Gore, vice presidential nominee Joe Biden, a host of retired generals, leading Democratic and Republican Party luminaries, and ordinary Americans.

By now the themes of the convention were clear: the Bush Administration failed in both its economic and foreign policies, and John McCain was presented as seeking "a third term for the Bush Administration." Speaker after speaker told of economic hardships and unmet needs: Hurricane Katrina, factory closings, lack of health care, a battered infrastructure and educational system, and they called for change – not four more years of the same policies.

And, finally, Barack Obama delivered his address accepting the nomination of the Party. The fact that this speech was being given on the 45th anniversary of Martin Luther King, Jr.’s "I have a Dream Speech," was an important reminder to the nation of how far America has come. Obama, who at many times in his career has been challenged to deliver "the speech of his life," did not disappoint. What he was expected to do, he did. He took the fight directly to John McCain, making clear that he would match his experience and, most importantly, judgment on foreign policy against what he described as McCain’s repeated failure to make the right call. Obama laid out, in detail, his policy programs on a range of domestic and foreign policy challenges. Concluding with the soaring rhetoric that has become his trademark, and echoing John Kennedy, Obama inspired the nation to be confident that the many challenges facing it could be met.

But that was not all that this convention was about. Throughout the week there were scores of official and unofficial caucuses and meetings of the party faithful and affiliated organizations. During these sessions, the thousands of participants debated issues and engaged in planning strategies for the two month race to November. And now, on the last day, charged with an agenda, Democrats leave Denver and go back to the fifty states to plan for the fall.

Making clear how difficult the challenges ahead are and how supercharged this contest will be, no sooner had the four day event ended than John McCain, the Republican’s nominee, announced his surprise pick for Vice President – a virtually unknown Governor from Alaska, Sarah Palin. Palin is as young and inexperienced in the ways of politics as McCain is old and a fixture in Washington. The novelty, however, of her having been chosen has allowed Republicans to dominate the airwaves, diverting attention from the conclusion of the Democrats’ meeting and giving McCain a press coup.

With Obama and Biden now beginning a post-convention campaign tour, attention turns to the Republican convention which began on Monday in Minneapolis. It will be as orchestrated and charged affair as the Democrats’ event, as the Republicans will work to reintroduce their candidates to the nation. Like the Democrats, they will seek to define the differences between the two Parties, inspire their faithful, present their agenda and inspire their base.