Monthly Archives: August 2008

Those who came to Invesco Field on Thursday witnessed something they are unlikely ever to forget. Barack Obama gave an electrifying speech that silences—for the moment at least—doubts in the Democratic party that they have backed the right candidate. He commanded this vast sports stadium with calm authority, there were no false notes, and the attention of his audience never wavered. His listeners were enthralled, and they left believing they will win in November. After this, they were asking, how could the country fail to elect their man president?

The event started slowly, with enormous lines at security, a dreary succession of second-rate speakers, and a clutch of by-the-numbers political videos. Al Gore, Sheryl Crow, and Stevie Wonder raised the standard only a little, with dull renditions of their greatest hits, and the thought that this entire mega-production was going to backfire was impossible to suppress. Who in the world thought that the Greek temple stage-set was right? If the designer’s brief had been “low-budget hubris”, it worked; by any other standard it was a calamity. With the Republicans calling Mr Obama a vapid celebrity, this was outright self-parody. Yet none of it mattered when Mr Obama started to speak.

He began with a brief but seemingly sincere tribute to Hillary Clinton—who had given a well-received speech earlier in the convention. He wove vignettes of ordinary people’s struggles during the past eight years—the human element said to be missing from his campaign of late—into a statement of his own political philosophy. You cannot connect with people in a space of this size, but this was the next best thing. Part of his speech then crisply listed specific policy proposals, addressing the charge that he is too vague. He directly rebutted John McCain’s insinuation that he fails to put the country first: “We all put the country first,” he said with a touch of anger, to one of the loudest cheers of the night.

He attacked his opponent, but there was nothing vicious or vindictive in his criticisms. He said Mr McCain was for the wrong policies not because he did not care about people, but because he did not understand them and was out of touch. He gently contrasted his own modest upbringing with Mr McCain’s wealth. In that way, Mr Obama stayed true to the positive tone of his campaign, yet wounded his adversary as well. He closed by reiterating his earlier theme that this is not red America or blue America but the United States of America—in other words, with a renewed appeal to tolerance, moderation, and patriotism. More deafening cheers.

The costs of the policies he listed do not add up, of course: affordable college, affordable health care for all, subsidies for clean energy and every other good thing, and tax cuts for 95 percent of households. This is not exactly the count-every-dime accounting he claimed. Yet the measured force of Mr Obama in full flight is not to be denied. In modern American politics, he is peerless. How it looked on television will matter most for his campaign, but in the stadium it was a triumph.

An article of faith for almost all the Democrats at the Denver convention is that the country’s much-diminished trade-union movement needs to be revived. Membership has fallen to less than 10 percent of the private-sector workforce. This decline is a main reason, it is argued, for stagnating middle-class wages. Public policy, say the Democrats, can help.

The rallying-point is the proposed Employee Free Choice Act (EFCA), a measure co-sponsored by Barack Obama and already passed by the house of representatives. Mr Obama promises to sign it into law as president, if the senate moves it forward and it reaches his desk. Politically and on its merits, however, this is an ill-advised piece of legislation.

EFCA’s most sought-after provision is a “card-check” rule that would oblige employers to recognise a union and bargain with it if half the workforce signed cards saying that they were in favour. Labour law varies from state to state but the current procedure usually requires a secret ballot, which protects workers from intimidation. John McCain has opposed the change and advocates a Secret Ballot Protection Act instead.

The unions have a point when they complain of intimidation by employers. EFCA would stiffen penalties for firms that bully union sympathisers, which is both desirable and good politics. But the card-check initiative is what the party is emphasising, and otherwise pro-union voters are bound to have mixed feelings about it.

A secret ballot protects workers who want union recognition as well as those who do not. That is why opposing it arouses suspicion. Membership has fallen at least partly because workers themselves doubt that unions best serve their interests, and with reason. Opposition to secret ballots does not reassure them. It is a self-serving demand, and plays badly with the centrists the Democrats need to bring in. It is bad politics, therefore, as well as bad law.

A broader question is whether weak unions are part of what ails the middle-income workforce. Their decline probably explains some of the wage slowdown—although the most striking aspect of the country’s growing inequality is the astonishing growth in the very highest incomes, an unrelated issue. The right kind of unionism can raise wages and advance workers’ interests while improving a company’s competitiveness. The wrong kind, as the UK knows only too well, can cripple industries and indeed whole economies.

The secret of success, arguably, is a culture of accommodation and non-confrontation. Unions can make it easier for firms to work in closer partnership with their employees, to their mutual advantage. But if the relationship is framed as nothing but a contest over rents—a zero-sum game, with no holds barred—the drawbacks seem likely to predominate. What may concern centrist voters is that Democrats are apt to press the unions’ case in precisely this spirit of confrontation. Anti-business sentiment is a dominant note at the convention. EFCA’s most enthusiastic advocates would like nothing better than to grind the faces of the bosses. You do not have to be a boss to be wary of that.

[This article appeared in the FT yesterday. The last paragraph was cut for space except for its first sentence, which on its own is either mystifying or absurd, according to taste--as emails to me have pointed out. So, with apologies if you have seen the edited piece already, I thought I would post what I filed.]

Taken together, the speeches by Bill and Hillary Clinton eventually gave Barack Obama everything he wanted from them. Their support came late, and the delay and equivocation have surely exacted a price: the sagging momentum of Obama’s campaign of late owes something to the Clintons’ ongoing grievances. Finally, though, they gave him the backing he needed.

Both of the Clintons gave outstanding, memorable speeches, and they formed two parts of a single whole. As I said yesterday, Hillary’s attack on the Bush administration and John McCain—underlining what was at stake in this election—carried sustained force and conviction. In the plainest terms, she told her supporters to vote for Obama. Up to then, many were still wavering, and some were determined to abstain or worse. For the first time, she denied them permission to do so. Nonetheless, the case she made rested on what was wrong with Bush and McCain, rather than on what was right about the Democratic nominee. She held something back.

The next night, Bill made good the deficit. People say he is still angry over the way the Obama campaign accused him of exploiting race, impugned his record as president (not as “transformative” as Ronald Reagan), and disrespected his wife (failing even to consult her on the vice-presidential nomination). If those really are his feelings, he disguised them brilliantly. There was no trace of recrimination, and his finely crafted speech dwelt almost exclusively on Obama’s fitness for office. In one surprising stroke, he even congratulated Obama on his choice of Joe Biden as running-mate—a consolation prize Hillary seems to have wanted. Obama’s first big decision, Bill said, was to nominate his vice-president, “and he hit it out of the park.” That was extraordinary.

These excellent performances do somewhat diminish the new team. Biden’s speech, following quickly after Bill’s, was lame by comparison. The delivery was faltering, and the substance routine. Yes, Biden showed he has the common touch, which many find lacking in Obama—but if the electorate sees Barack as aloof and cerebral, choosing a likeable deputy does not put that right. And the fact that the Clintons so dominated the first three days of the convention, making it their show as much as Obama’s, was less than ideal.

Still, unless they swerve again over the coming weeks, the Clintons cannot be accused of letting the party down. This serves their interests, of course: it keeps alive Hillary’s hopes of another run at the presidency should Obama lose in November, and it restores Bill’s own standing in the party. Whatever their motives, however, and despite the fact that the Clintons are a hard act to follow, Obama must be pleased. They most likely succeeded, after all, in uniting the party around him. Better late than never.

Dave Barry is writing a column on the convention for National Journal. It is the most fearlessly truthful reporting I have seen so far. (What a ridiculous profession this is.)

Call me a courageous explorer in the mold of Lewis and Clark if you want, but I did something insanely brave here: I traveled alone, on foot, all the way across the convention floor.

This is actually a lot harder than what Lewis and Clark did. Yes, they had to cross thousands of miles of hostile wilderness surviving on pine needles and squirrel jerky. But that’s nothing compared with the obstacles I faced. Spike Lee, for example.

Here’s a minute-by-minute account of my ordeal:

7:40 — I get a temporary media floor pass, which allows me to be on the floor for exactly 30 minutes. If I don’t return the pass by 8:10, something bad happens, although they don’t tell you exactly what, so you have to assume waterboarding.

7:41 — I step onto the convention floor and am immediately caught up in a surging mass of humanity consisting of every Democrat who has ever lived. Grover Cleveland is in here somewhere. Yes, he died in 1908, but the crowd is so dense that he is unable to fall down.

7:43 — Somewhere in the distance is the podium, where an important Democratic dignitary is speaking about Change. He is for it. Down here on the floor, we are wishing that our fellow surgers would change to a stronger deodorant. We are pressed together so tightly that some of us could easily wind up pregnant by as many as eight different people, and I am not ruling out Grover.

7:48 — Through intense effort I manage to surge maybe eight feet, where the path is blocked by a TV network that has set up a platform on the floor so its reporters can report on the convention by talking to each other with their backs to the actual convention. There is huge excitement in the surge as people catch glimpses of both Anderson Cooper and Wolf Blitzer, who are, in this environment, the Beatles. The surgers all stop, whip out cellphones, and take pictures of the backs of the heads of people who are taking pictures of the backs of the heads of people who might actually be getting direct visual shots of Anderson and Wolf. It is a lifetime convention memory.

She was at her best. It was a fine speech, an urgent call for unity, and the delivery was phenomenal: passionate, forceful, and not the least bit false. (There was humour too: the twin-cities joke was great, and will linger in people’s minds next week.) From the various personalities she tried on during the campaign, she selected tough, resolute, never-give-up Hillary, and the tone did not deviate. This is much the best and most convincing of the Hillaries: one imagines, in fact, the real thing. If she had stuck with her throughout the primaries, she might have been giving a speech like that on Thursday night instead.

A lot of previously wavering Democrats will be wondering if they have chosen the wrong nominee; even more will be wondering if it was a mistake to deny her the VP slot. But one can hardly blame her for that. The convention wanted a great rousing speech and it got one.

Was it a whole-hearted endorsement of Obama? Having watched an hour or so of instant commentary–which for the most part said yes, it was–I find I disagree. Certainly, there was nothing mean in the speech (though I wondered about the repeated reference to “universal” health care: a coded rebuke, maybe, since her campaign continually stressed that Obama’s plan falls short of that). And she certainly told her supporters to vote for him. That was crystal clear. She did not give them tacit permission to stay at home, still less vote for McCain.

So she cannot be accused of sabotaging Barack. If he fails, after this, she will be available in 2012. But there was almost no praise. (Compare Rudy Giuliani and Mitt Romney on John McCain.) She made the case for a Democratic president, but not for Obama. What she said, in a superbly effective way, was that another four years of Bushism made voting for Obama necessary–in so many words, whatever reservations one might have about him.

I’m sure the speech helps Obama. Much as Hillary still wants to be president, she erred in that direction. Maybe she will get her reward in four years. But it was not an entirely selfless speech. I think she could have helped him more, had she chosen to.

I ran into Massie Ritsch of the Center for Responsive Politics–a (truly) nonpartisan outfit that tracks money as it flows through the political system. Buying influence and access is not quite as straightforward as it used to be, he explains. You have to go to a bit more trouble over it. But the people in the skyboxes at this event (as for sure at the Republican convention next week) include many of the usual suspects.

Barack Obama’s 500-plus bundlers have raised at least one-fifth of his total cash. Most of the money John McCain has raised has resulted from the efforts of just over 500 bundlers–a plurality of whom are lobbyists. Bundlers, who are now listed for both Obama and McCain in OpenSecrets.org’s presidential section, collect checks from others for a single candidate and “bundle” them together. Starting with the conventions, where they’re invited to the best parties and given prime seats inside the hall, each bundler stands to be well connected should his or her candidate win the presidency.

Not that they need the boost. Among the bundlers are some of the richest people in the world, including hotel and casino magnate Sheldon Adelson (third richest, according to Forbes magazine), oilman George Kaiser (ranked 26th) and filmmaker David Geffen (ranked 52nd). A decade ago such high rollers would simply write a check to their party of choice, but campaign finance reforms prohibiting that–ironically sponsored by McCain–now curtail party donations at $28,500. To get around that, these socialites are boosting their candidate’s bottom line with a little help from their friends.

Lax rules on corporate funding of the conventions also constitute a significant loophole in the campaign-finance rules:

Private money, expected to exceed $112 million for the two conventions combined, will pay for an estimated 80% of their cost. As of August 8, 2008, 173 organizational donors — overwhelmingly corporations but also several trade unions — had been identified on convention city “host committee” websites. These organizations have responded to solicitations from partisan elected officials and fundraisers dispatched by the host committees. These solicitors have dangled promises of access to grateful federal elected officials.

Michelle Obama did her part and closed a somewhat purposeless first day of the Democratic convention on a positive note. She came over as strong and assured, yet approachable and not at all threatening or angry–those last two were the notes, of course, that the campaign was most anxious to avoid. Her story was touching, and their marriage reflects well on her husband. Yes, one thought, she is a remarkable woman and he did well. Also, she dealt deftly with a couple of awkward issues: of course she loves America; and words can barely do justice to her regard for Hillary Clinton. It was good stuff, well delivered.

My spirits sagged, and even then only a little, at just two points. It’s starting to annoy me that Barack keeps telling us how he turned down Wall Street for a career in “public service”. By this he means politics. Just how great a sacrifice is that? The kind of ambition that gets you into the Senate and maybe the White House is not exactly renouncing the world and all its temptations, is it? And now here we have Michelle doing the same thing. She gave up lawyering, she says, and chose “public service”–the kind that leads in due course to a 300k-plus salary. I’ve no problem with it. I just don’t want to keep being asked to admire the sacrifice.

The other dispiriting thing was the stuff with the girls at the end. They are cute, and the traditions of American politics must be observed, no doubt, but it makes me uncomfortable to see children used as political props. One ought to feel much the same way, I suppose, about spouses. At a couple of points in this campaign, when Michelle has come in for criticism, Barack said, “leave her out of this.” At those times I remember thinking, he’s right: the country is not electing her. Maybe, in fact, it is: in any event, you can’t have it both ways.

A little earlier, the ailing Ted Kennedy greatly moved the audience with a most dignified address–a speech that was all about the country and Obama, and not at all about him. And yet, as I say, the first day seemed somewhat drifting and unfocused. With three days still to go, it is too soon to complain of complacency. But the Democratic campaign is in trouble. So far, you would not know it from the mood in Denver.

Daily Kos, the Alliance for Sustainable Colorado, and ProgressNow have organized a week-long programme in the Big Tent, actually a medium-sized building near the convention centre. One panel including Arianna Huffington and Paul Krugman discussed the challenge of getting people to see what is obvious. “We must be willing to listen to people who disagree with us,” suggested Mrs Huffington. A novel and valuable thought.

Next, Anne-Marie Slaughter (describing herself as Mr Krugman’s boss at Princeton) asked the eponymous Kos (Markos Moulitsas), Jane Mayer (author of a new book on civil liberties and terrorism), and Van Jones (environmental campaigner) to give President Obama “five to seven minutes of advice”. They ignored her, even though she set a good example with a crisply stated agenda of her own: close the prison at Guantanamo; apply the Geneva conventions without exception or equivocation; green the economy; rebuild the international institutions so that they give the emerging powers more voice; and combat nuclear proliferation. Are you listening, Mr President?

The others, also with new books to promote, had interesting things to say about them. My reading list keeps growing. And Mr Moulitsas provided the most surprising statistic of the week. He said the median age of his readers was 45, and that he had more readers aged 65 or over than under 25. Blogging looks to be a dying industry.

The Democrats have an ill-advised fondness for celebrities, and the feeling is mutual. Stars of stage, screen and recording studio are everywhere to be seen in Denver. At a brunch co-hosted by the Service Employees International Union and the Creative Coalition—a “nonpartisan (what?) social and public policy advocacy organization”—Spike Lee, Ellen Burstyn, Matthew Modine, Alan Cumming, Barry Levinson, and a somewhat familiar-looking actress who plays a nurse on television looked on earnestly as Danny Glover called for social justice and enactment of the Employee Free Choice Act.

Barack Obama has promised to back the law. Among other things, it would compel union recognition if more than 50 percent of a company’s workforce signed cards affirming their wish to be a member: no secret ballot required. The opportunities for intimidation are obvious. (A recent TV ad opposing the measure shows a Mafioso-type heavy offering a worker a card and a pen, as a bunch of thugs stand by.) Advocates of the law say that union-recognition elections are corrupted by employer intimidation, and the so-called card-check method is therefore necessary. Speaking as a worker, and bearing both kinds of undue pressure in mind, I would rather take my chances with a secret ballot. Other pieces of EFCA are less indefensible, and it is a shame to see them tethered to this plain infringement of civil liberty, but the unions want card-check more than all the rest, and the law’s advocates regard the measure as indivisible.

None of this was discussed over brunch, needless to say. The law was not even described: it was posited as self-evidently desirable, and that was that. The only question was how to get it passed. Send for some actors. They draw a crowd, I grant you, but I wonder whether brunch with the stars really advances the cause.

If your idea of fun is to spend five days standing in line with people who want to talk about nothing but politics, Denver is the place. A disinterested observer contemplating the vast steel cage that lines the convention perimeter might think, “There’s a good idea; shove them all in and throw away the key.” It’s a plan, but the problem is getting people in to start with. There are perimeter credentials and “pre-credentials” (they might be the same thing), plus, obviously, actual credentials, and far too few of the latter to go round. Or so it is rumoured.

Security for the event is certainly daunting. Supposedly 42, or is it 53 or 55, separate agencies are involved in the exercise, run from a “situation room” in a secret location. That is a characteristically American solution: the bigger the problem, the more agencies you apply to it. Even at altitude, these things breed. You need agencies to co-ordinate the agencies, and so on.

Picture the scene: 42 (or 53 or 55) agencies, licensed to inflict limitless inconvenience on anyone in their way, seamlessly pooling their resources and expertise, so that the whole thing runs like clockwork. What could go wrong?

Clive Crook’s blog

This blog is no longer updated but it remains open as an archive.

I have been the FT's Washington columnist since April 2007. I moved from Britain to the US in 2005 to write for the Atlantic Monthly and the National Journal after 20 years working at the Economist, most recently as deputy editor. I write mainly about the intersection of politics and economics.

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