Wednesday, May 28, 2008
There is a very easy way for Barack Obama's team to avoid floor fights at the Democratic National Convention.
Just say yes.
Every four years, whoever is running the convention uses polls and focus groups to find out what would be the best and worst possible scenarios for a convention. And every four years, the results are the same. The press wants fights. They want contention, minority reports and roll call votes.
This is not what would-be voters want. They want peace. They have this idea, not entirely without merit, that if you can't run your own convention -- where you control a majority of delegates -- you can't run the country.
The prototype of a bad convention is 1968, with the Chicago police attacking demonstrators, who looked an awful lot like college students, outside the hall, and the scene only slightly friendlier inside. But the Democratic Convention in 1972 wasn't much better, with George McGovern delivering his eloquent "Come Home, America" speech at 3 a.m., long after most Americans had not only come home, but gone to bed.
Get the timing right. Accept the nomination in prime time. No one wins the fights except the loser. That was certainly the lesson in 1980, when the Carter campaign, collecting the signatures for minority reports, decided -- for reasons I'm not sure I understand to this day, and I was there -- that whatever the Kennedy forces proposed in the Platform, Rules and Credentials committees, they would oppose. Fine with us. We turned platform into the 51st primary. You want to explain to your labor delegates why they're voting against health insurance for all; to women why they're voting against reproductive freedom; to everyone why they're voting against a plank to provide food and housing assistance for needy children (I wrote that one myself)…
By the time we headed into the convention, I had perfected the trick of having committee members sign their names on blank pieces of paper over and over, which I could then staple to cover sheets with the "minority reports" of my choice, giving me something like 44 of them (half an hour of debate per side, roll call votes, the whole nine yards) to start trading away for a speech for Sen. Kennedy, not to mention some fun victories on the floor. Fun for whom? Not Jimmy Carter.
Democrats haven't made that particular mistake again, in part because the veterans of those past failures have generally been in charge, one way or another, ever since, and most of us have vowed to keep the fights to a minimum and the speeches in prime time. What you put in the platform doesn't matter; it's what you don't. Whom you seat doesn't matter; it's whom you don't. Remember the Republican Convention in 1992, where conservative Christians tried to keep Lincoln out of the platform and Ronald Reagan emerged as the voice of moderation? I called all my friends from Houston, where the Republicans were meeting, to tell them the good news. Good for Democrats.
The lesson in all of this for Barack Obama is very simple. Just say yes. Assuming the confidence his people are insisting they feel is justified, and that he really is on the verge of locking this up, the only thing he should really be thinking about is his vice presidential selection. Nothing else matters, except not giving Democrats (some of whom are ready to fight if they have an excuse) the excuse.
Sorry, but this is not about principle. It's about politics. It's about not creating issues you don't need. If Michigan and Florida really won't save Hillary, let her have them. They lost the influence they would have had on the process had their votes counted in the first instance. Be gracious. Graciousness becomes a winner. Scrappiness is what you expect from someone who's still fighting to win. Which one is Obama?
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