Notes from the Democratic National Convention

Written by Total Politics has a free weekly Friday email bulletin. Follow this link to register. on 7 September 2012 in Diary
Welcome to Charlotte, North Carolina: a Wagnerian stage show without enough beer but with plenty of chorus. And oh the themes, the relentless themes... 

Andy meet Charlotte, Charlotte meet Andy.

Bloody hot, really sticky, lots of rain. More police than at a Liverpool v United game. Charlotte is not Blackpool and this is not a conference.

Plus I’m grumpy. Sticking me out in Concord – which isn’t Charlotte although the Organizing Committee may beg to differ – means an early start with no chance of repairing to the hotel to address the incipient jet-lag before things really get going (and keep going until way after midnight).  And you can’t get a drink - other than Cola, Mountain Dew and Roosters Root Beer - in the hall.

Getting into the Convention Centre and hall early in the day is a breeze. A little bit of security. A confusion of law-enforcement uniforms (why does the Secret Service have that as a label on all their clothes?) but forget trying to get out of the ‘perimeter’ and back in again.  The entire fringe is, of course, ‘outside’.  By mid-afternoon on the first day the waiting time to get through security is 45 minutes and rising. Everybody has priority it seems. And it throws it down. And there’s no cover. And forget that happy, smiley welcome you got from the military at the Olympics. Here its don’t ask, don’t get delayed.

Pre-jaundiced on the importance of this thing. You bet.

The Convention’s role is to formally nominate the candidate. The last time it was needed in the modern media age (i.e. when news was available quicker than the postal service could deliver it) was the 1976 RNC, when, the then governor, Ronald Reagan nearly won the nomination away from the incumbent president, Gerald Ford. Neither candidate, going into the election had received enough votes to lock up the nomination.  The last attempt to release delegates from their candidates came at the 1980 DNC when Senator Ted Kennedy of Massachusetts sought the votes of delegates held by the incumbent President Jimmy Carter. Other than these two humdingers it’s usually a humdrum affair.

Convention also has a subsidiary role in adopting the Parties Platform – mostly ignored as an irrelevance - and the rules for the next Presidential Nomination Process.  It’s an outdated anachronism in that there is no debate –only carefully prepared speeches that aren’t called speeches but instead reside under the wonderful sobriquet  ‘remarks’.  There is no discussion of the Platform. Even when they get it wrong by de-capitalizing Jerusalem, there’s no debate. There is no criticism of the Party or Policy. There is only cheerleading and applause. And there are a lot of ‘remarks’ – we had 52 of them on Wednesday – and don’t forget the Videos, all 8 of them. And they don’t sell beer in the hall.

So it’s a show. It’s meant to deliver an image as a message. There is no room for other than the party faithful and those on-message. Even in the caucus meetings I attended the absence of a dialogue let alone dialectic was painfully apparent.

Such is the pre-scripting at Charlotte that it feels like a Wagnerian opera as the core themes are introduced, echoed, emphasized and finally celebrated over the whole day.  Ahh, the Themes. The Middle Class - wider than the US as far as I can see, in fact by one speaker’s definition the Middle Class is 99% of the population.  The American Dream – available to all minorities. The Auto Industry – saved by Captain America nee Obama from none other than Mitt – and I thought it was the Global Financial Crisis wot almost closed Detroit. The Military – now stronger because the Mums of America are behind it (weren’t they before?).  

And all these (there were more as well believe me, but life and this article is too short to list them all) are then reduced through the mincing machine of the media into a sound-bite that lasts less than the introductory bars of a good aria. Tuesday became “Michelle galvanizes the Convention”. Wednesday was “Bill thumps Mitt”.  And as this article was written before Barack spoke on Thursday I have no idea what his 45 minutes were reduced to.

Most of the Wagner I have seen involves a storm. So did Charlotte. So much rain and fear of rain that on the Thursday morning the Organising Committee moved the main Obama speech from the 70,000 capacity stadium into the smaller 21,000 Hall in which the first two days of the convention were held. The Gotterdammerung under arc lights instead.

The big arias at the convention went to Michelle, Bill and Barack. On the first night Michelle was on superb form. She hit all the notes without once mentioning Mitt. In contrast speaker after video after speaker before her lost no opportunity to diss the rival Republican nominee.  This was the Hardball Campaign after all.  She was good. Charismatic. And she got Wagner – Change ”is a long game here...change is hard...change is slow”

And then there is the chorus. It only has one tune – but two versions of it. The first  - USA (repeat ad infinitum to a three beat rhythm) has been heard often this summer at the Olympics. The alternate track – Four More Years – is a rare beast, last heard in the company of Dubya. The chorus breaks out in the most unlikely places – all it needs is three like-minded ladies in a queue and you’re away.  Given the length of the Starbucks queue I was in when it started just behind me I thought it surprisingly predictive.

The speeches (sorry ‘remarks’) are in English – such is the importance of the Latino vote and in particularly in the swing states of Florida, Colorado, Nevada and North Carolina I expected at least simultaneous translation.  Obama has the Latino vote – at the last count 65% of it – but getting that vote out in the swing states is critical. Hence Julian Castro, the Mayor of San Antonio got the support role on Tuesday to Michelle and Antonio Villaraigosa did the same job for Bill on Wednesday.

And North Carolina is a key swing state. Obama won it last time – holding it will be difficult. In the one vox-pop I did in support of data-based evidence the three guys at the bar and the two waitresses of Logan’s RoadHouse on late Wednesday were 4-1 Republican – although more concerned about the football season which kicked off this week. The soundtrack in the bar was Jason Aldean’s Dirt Road Anthem.  The floor strewn with peanut shells.  Yes, you could get a really good, cold beer. Stereotypes applied. But, the divergent opinion came from the waitress  “I ain’t so sure about Romney. He’s got lots of secrets”.

The big secret of the Convention is who hid the Deficit. This is the Elephant. Not Mitt and his boys. It’s why this Convention is so negative.  Nobody talked about it. It didn’t exist in Charlotte’s world. Better that the question is about Mitt than about “what would you do, Barack, to fill the next four years”.  Obama has metamorphosed into the Great (Cautious) Helmsman. It’s all about the personal.  Its about who’s the better dad/husband/empathizer? Politics at Charlotte is the personal. No policy, just exemplars and victims and pathos.

Which is why it was opera. The personal overwhelmed you. The orchestration on the videos plaintively echoed the heartstrings that the images pulled. Obamacare was made real by the mum and her daughter with the rare heart defect that the insurers had to pay for. Equal pay for all had a face and a wonderful straightouta Forrest Gump Alabama accent– they even named the act after her. The Mayor of San Antonio loved his mum. The Mayor of Charlotte only had his mum. He was from a Single Parent Family. So many rich politicians had had it tough I began to think that it was a requirement that you shared a bed with at least one sibling before you could claim membership of that ever-expanding middle class.

Jaundiced. Yes. This wasn’t politics it was opera. But you can’t help but love it. It was gaudy and brash. It was fun. The dress code was Uncle Sam meets Saturday at the test cricket. It had a sense of occasion. Once every four years. Never the same place.  Unique.

Thanks Charlotte. 

Tags: Andy Wilson, Bill, Charlotte, Convention, Democratic National Convention, Democrats, Election, Michelle, Mitt Romney, North Carolina, Obama, President, US

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