First, the obvious part. Here is Russ Feingold speaking, not at the convention itself but a few blocks and about a million cops uptown at Arianna Huffington’s shadow convention: “What we are seeing on television are not really party conventions, where representative delegates come to confer and choose. Rather, these are basically now corporate trade shows for the delegates, while the main show is behind closed doors at big-dollar, soft-money fundraisers, and those soft-money contributions, make no mistake, are setting the agenda for the American Congress and for the United States as a whole.”
The thrust of Feingold’s argument is unarguable, but its bluntness obscures important nuances. The televised convention was just one of many taking place simultaneously. Each is important, though rarely for the reasons discussed in public.
Of course, the money convention is of paramount importance, and in this regard the two parties are, per Ralph Nader, indistinguishable. The Democrats may even be a little worse. To be a member of the Republican Regents, a fat-cat or corporate contributor need only pony up a measly $250,000 in unregulated cash. Admission to the Democrats’ Chairman’s Club will set you back twice that much. What’s more, the Democrats have even worse taste, if that’s possible. Sure, there’s a lot of polyester and argyle at a Trent Lott golf tournament, but at the $500,000 Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee’s Mardi Gras fundraiser, partygoers were reportedly greeted by the sight of Louisiana Senator John Breaux dressed in a fluorescent orange jumpsuit imitating James Brown, wearing a washboard and playing spoons onstage. I say “reportedly” because The Nation does not pay me enough to witness John Breaux in a fluorescent orange jumpsuit imitating James Brown.
Much of the media’s convention coverage was pretty good. Reports of the garish Breaux fundraiser noted that each of the sponsoring companies and trade industries had a specific interest in Breaux’s Medicare reform legislation or one of the bills before his various committees. Most noted that the contributions were tax-deductible and hence partially funded by you and me. They dutifully quoted Breaux insisting that corporations are just plain stupid. While they happily give their shareholders’ money away, “They don’t get any special treatment.” All that legislation that could mean billions to each of the companies and industries in question is nothing more than a happy coincidence. In fact, you or I might consider asking, say, Bristol-Myers Squibb or the American Gas Association for a few hundred grand to throw our next party. Anyway, as FEC member Bradley Smith argues on the Wall Street Journal editorial page, “Studies indicate that private contributions play little or no role in determining legislative behavior.” My own studies also indicate that you can’t believe a damn thing you read on the Wall Street Journal editorial page.
The media’s convention was also covered extensively, though much of it focused on party invitations and celebrity sightings. One reason for this is that journalists do not generally earn like lawyers but imagine they could have. They therefore tend to obsess about tiny distinctions in status. Party invitations to places like the Playboy Mansion, the West Wing set and Spago represent not only free food and liquor but a kind of existential reassurance of one’s place in the universe. As with teenage boys and sex, nary a journalistic conversation took place in LA that did not, eventually, make its way to party plans.
That these gatherings were peopled by the likes of “Warren,” “Bianca” and too many Baldwin brothers to count gave them the added virtue of alleged newsworthiness. It meant you could brag not only to your peers but to your readers. Sidling up to Annette Bening at Barbra Streisand’s house, you were, as Jesse Jackson might say, “somebody.” All of this explains how a mere cocktail party thrown by New York Times LA bureau chief Todd Purdum and his wife, former Clinton press secretary Dee Dee Myers, could lead to the former screaming into his cell phone at a lowly New York Observer reporter, “this is my fucking house and you are not coming and you can shove your head up your fucking ass,” noting also that he had posted two armed guards. Moreover, it also helps clarify why, when another Observer was barred from the George magazine/Creative Coalition party for alleged obnoxiousness, the entire staff boycotted the event in what now passes for professional solidarity. Yet another reporter was heard to explain to the guards at the West Wing party that she would be fired if she was not allowed in. What I want to know is, was this woman a professional gossip or can an actual reporter say this kind of thing without shame nowadays?
Alas, the convention that received the least amount of media attention was the one that ostensibly justified the entire expense: the delegates’ convention. Reporters made small stabs at covering this one, but they were halfhearted and self-evident place-markers. Would the Democrats’ heavy-handed treatment of Loretta Sanchez and her nonparty at Hef’s cost the party support in the Latino community? Would Maxine Waters swallow her objections to Joe Lieberman and endorse the ticket? Did Clinton hog the spotlight? Would anarchist protesters blow up the Staples Center, killing every one of us?
These pathetic excuses for articles disappeared by midweek as if by decree as everyone decided to focus on a single story line: Could Al Gore credibly imitate a real human primate in his acceptance speech, or was this election already over? Expectations were low. “Not a natural,” explained William Schneider on CNN. “Supercilious,” added Fox’s William Kristol. “Don’t jump around and shout at me!” demanded Sam Donaldson. “The one thing he must do is don’t shout!”
All this trashing of Gore’s acting abilities had significant implications for the speech’s reception. It set expectations nice and low, just as reporters had done for George Bush. But it also further downgraded the importance of the delegates–unfortunate because there were legitimate stories to tell about the differences between the Republican and Democratic delegates. While 20 percent of the Republicans were millionaires, a slightly higher percentage of Democratic delegates were union members. The ones I spoke with were members of the SEIU, the NEA and AFSCME. Many were black or brown, gay or lesbian and were activists around various issues in their communities. Generally these people were ignored by the media and occasionally humiliated by the party. They got one night of speeches that party operatives did not even encourage the TV networks to cover. (My friend Michael Waldman, Clinton’s former chief speechwriter, called Tuesday night “Democrat Night at the Democratic convention.”) One sight that particularly irked me was a beautifully lavish DCCC spread for contributors that was placed just below the Staples Center escalators, so that hungry delegates could see wealthy donors feasting on mountains of shrimp, canapés and champagne as they got in line to pay the Staples Center’s exorbitant prices for hot dogs and beer. (The site itself is a tribute to top-down class warfare. The corporate skyboxes–all 173 of them–are closer to the action than many of the seats.)
It’s true that the delegates had no role at the convention save that of cheerleading for the cameras, but they were important because they represent the kind of people who will be staffing a Gore administration at its lower levels and who will be trying to offset the pressure of the skybox crowd when the legislation gets written. The Republicans have no such constituency except the badly weakened Christian Coalition, and this will make a considerable difference in the lives of people who depend on the government for their day-to-day needs. Of course, few journalists know anybody like this, and so the story goes unwritten and the delegates ignored.
Meanwhile, all the focus on psychoanalyzing Al left the pundits unprepared for the actual Moment of Truth. Yes, the Gore people threw in a stomach-turning display of schmaltz, what with the entire Lieberman mishpocheh and one Gorey platitude after another from the mouths of Karenna, Kristin and Tipper. (And who, for goodness’ sake, was the sadist who advised that poor woman to enter the stage dancing?!) But following all the home movies, the lugubrious testimonials and the inappropriate public displays of affection was something we never saw in Philadelphia and did not expect from Gore: a real political strategy tied to a candidate’s public policies.
Pundits were shocked and amazed at the populist bent of Gore’s address and the specificity with which he outlined his plans for the future. Speaking for the collective, David Broder declared, “Gore’s acceptance speech on the final night of the Democratic National Convention was like nothing I have heard in 40 years of covering both parties’ quadrennial gatherings.” (Broder also announced that “most” delegates would leave Los Angeles “cautiously optimistic that the election can be won.” How he happened to canvass the opinions of “most” of the 5,000-plus delegates immediately after the speech, the “dean” did not bother to explain.)
In fact, Gore’s populist program, while belied by much of his career, was almost perfectly presaged in an article co-written by his pollster/strategist, Stan Greenberg, in a recent issue of The American Prospect and made widely available at the convention. It drew extensively on the research of two books, Ruy Teixeira and Joel Rogers’s America’s Forgotten Majority (Basic) and Theda Skocpol’s The Missing Middle (Norton). The latter, in particular, attempts to map out a strategy for the Democratic Party that, as Greenberg argues on the book jacket, “can liberate left-of-center politics” by building on the strengths of the Clinton Administration in the economic arena, as it redefines the discourse on social issues where Democrats are weakest. Skocpol insists that “most Americans worry about both the material circumstances and the moral climate for family life today.” The Democratic Leadership Council’s ascendancy notwithstanding, these swing voters are receptive to progressive policies that can become, in the Greenberg/Skocpol formulation, “a progressive mission for parents: expanded and intergenerational use of Social Security, ensured child support, affordable child care, a steadily expanding Medicare, and universal access to paid family leave.”
“Missing middle” politics (augmented by Joe Lieberman’s conservative cultural bona fides) gave Gore the chance to annex rhetorically the right’s religious discourse and twist it into a progressive shape. “Family values,” he told the convention, taking a page out of Skocpol’s book, “means honoring our fathers and mothers, teaching our children well, caring for the sick, respecting one another, giving people the power to achieve what they want for their families, putting both Social Security and Medicare in an ironclad lockbox where the politicians can’t touch them…. Getting cigarettes out of the hands of kids before they get hooked is a family value…. A new prescription drug benefit under Medicare for all our seniors, that’s a family value.” Take that, Bill Bennett.
The pundits hated it, and Republicans judged it a sure loser. George Will compared it to “sauerkraut ice-cream.” George Bush attacked it as “divisive” and riddled with the rhetoric of “class warfare.” Leaving the arena, I buttonholed Republican Party chairman Jim Nicholson, who looked like one happy fella. “I was genuinely surprised at how left he was,” Nicholson told me. “It really made my night.” Even longtime Democratic advisers were a bit shocked and confused. “Does Gore think he’s leading the Popular Front?” one asked me.
Well, the returns are in. Gore got at least a ten-point bounce from the speech–sixteen points with women–and has surged six points ahead in a Newsweek poll of registered voters. What’s more, he has created an opening for progressives to seize his language and shape it to create coalitions that speak to the mainstream of American political life and oppose the power of corporate interests to despoil our democracy. Should he win, these words will provide a standard to which progressives can hold him when he (inevitably) backslides. All in all, not a bad night’s work.
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Don’t Tell Marty. “The choice of Lieberman is also about money…. Jewish Americans have long been critical financial backers of the Democrats…. Close watchers of the political money game–which could be crucial in financing expensive media campaigns in California and the Midwest–put the Lieberman bonus at $20m-$30m in donations to the party. That is worth a lot more than Connecticut’s votes in the electoral college.” —The New Republic‘s Andrew Sullivan, Sunday Times of London, August 13