DENVER — Tuesday was a great night — for Hillary Clinton. Unfortunately for the Democrats, the evening didn’t do much to advance the candidacy of the man who will actually be their party’s nominee.
From the repeated references to her own campaign right down to the fact that the “Hillary” signs that the crowd were waving had the web address www.hillaryclinton.com printed on them, it was clear that the speech was more about her future presidential ambitions than it was about Barack Obama.
It’s true that Clinton helped to unify the party after a protracted primary by declaring herself “a proud supporter of Barack Obama” and saying, in as many ways as she could, that “he must be our President.” But her speech was weak in explaining why Obama must be elected.
This was not an isolated example. Throughout the night, one after the other, Democratic speakers came on stage and made a case for Obama that could have been made for any generic Democrat.
Montana Gov. Brian Schweitzer was given a prime speaking slot, because Democrats hope to win one or more of the interior western states that have traditionally voted Republican (a key reason why the convention is being held in Denver in the first place).
Schweitzer fired up the crowd with a rousing call for change, but when it came to pitching the man who will be the party’s nominee, he couldn’t do much better than, “Can we afford four more years? Is it time for a change? When do we need it? And who do we need as the next President of the United States of America? That’s right. Barack Obama is the change we need!”
Obama also hopes to win Virginia, which hasn’t voted for a Democrat in the general election since 1964 but is trending left. And so Mark Warner, the popular former Virginia governor who is favorite to win its open U.S. Senate seat, was given the keynote speaking slot.
His meandering speech talked about “the race to future” and declared that, “we need a president who understands the world today, the future we seek and the change we need. We need Barack Obama as the next President of the United States.” The argument for why we specifically need Obama never got more substantive than that.
It’s true that this is a change election and that an overwhelming majority of Americans disapprove of President Bush — which is why Democrats went into this year as the favorites to win the White House.
Obama’s challenge is not to convince Americans that they need change, but to overcome the public’s reservations about whether he is the man to deliver it. The Democratic National Convention could have been a four-day infomercial to convince skeptics why Barack Obama is ready to be president. So far, other than a successful speech by Michelle Obama, the convention has largely failed to present a case that will sway undecided voters.
Clinton, who spent her campaign assailing Obama for not being ready to lead the nation, could have used her speech as an opportunity to take back such comments and argue that he really is prepared to be president. Instead, she did the bare minimum she needed to do so that the next time she runs for president, she can claim to be a team player.
If Hillary overshadowed Obama last night, tonight Bill Clinton will be the story, especially since it has been reported that he will not attend Obama’s acceptance speech on Thursday.
The fact that Democrats are having such a difficult time making the case for Obama without attacking President Bush cuts to the underlying problem facing Obama’s candidacy — that he’s a freshman Senator who hasn’t accomplished anything of significance.
In the Democratic primaries, the tale of how Obama gave up a high-paying Wall Street job to become a community organizer in Chicago made liberal audiences swoon, but it doesn’t resonate as deeply among the general electorate.
Next week, by contrast, Republicans in Minneapolis will have four days to highlight McCain’s character, heroic war record, and decades of experience.
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