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The Democrats Strike Back

David Kusnet was chief speechwriter for former President Bill Clinton from 1992 through 1994. He is the author of Love the Work, Hate the Job: Why America’s Best Workers Are Unhappier than Ever.

Before the 2004 Democratic convention, I drafted a speech for a client. Intent on running a “positive” campaign, John Kerry’s message-meisters scrubbed the speech of even the mildest and most factual criticisms of the Bush Administration’s record. The same process was repeated during the vetting of dozens of speeches, major and minor; Karl Rove couldn’t have done a better job zapping any zingers that might have done Dubya harm. The result was a convention that produced no bounce for Kerry--and no bruises for Bush.

After Monday night’s session, some observers worried that, for all the eloquence and emotion of Ted Kennedy’s valedictory and Michelle Obama’s introduction, this year’s convention might be repeating 2004’s fundamental mistake. After Tuesday night, there’s much less cause for concern. Speaker after speaker, culminating in Hillary Clinton’s rousing appeal for her supporters to switch to Barack Obama, demonstrated that the Democrats will take the fight to McCain.

Much of Tuesday night was what conventions used to be: major political figures praising their nominees and pillorying their opponents. Yes, the Democrats need to begin by praising John McCain’s heroic service, but, ever since Mark Antony acknowledged that Brutus was an honorable man, orators have understood where to take it from there. With McCain, the line of attack almost writes itself: He now enjoys a life of richly deserved privilege so far removed from his fellow citizens that he forgets how many houses he owns, believes most people have benefited from the past seven years, and has advisers who call anxious Americans “whiners.” In order to cap his career with the Republican presidential nomination, he faithfully supported President Bush and courted the same special interests that had opposed him years ago.

So, as Pennsylvania Senator Bob Casey declared, McCain isn’t a maverick--he’s Bush’s sidekick. And, as Ohio Governor Ted Strickland explained: “You know, it was once said of the first George Bush that he was born on third base and thought he’d hit a triple. Well, with the 22 million new jobs and the budget surplus Bill Clinton left behind, George W. Bush came into office on third base, and then he stole second. And John McCain cheered him every step of the way.” Montana Governor Brian Schweitzer--the surprise star of the evening--said that the nation couldn’t meet its energy needs just by drilling for oil, even if we drilled in every one of John McCain’s back yards.

These lines will be repeated by Democratic speakers in the weeks ahead. So should Massachusetts Governor Deval Patrick’s bit (credited to Barney Frank) that “government is just the name we give the things we do together” ... and the line several speakers used about how we are borrowing money from China to buy oil from Saudi Arabia ... and Schweitzer’s phrase “petro-dictators,” which includes bad guys from any religion and nationality.

Listening Tuesday night was a reminder that speeches are meant to be spoken, heard, and cheered or chanted at. As Schweitzer showed, energy and expressiveness are a speaker’s best friends, and phrasings that get speakers and audiences rocking and rolling are often more important than those that read well on a printed page. So Casey’s simple litany--they want four more years, but they only have four more months--is worth repeating for the next few weeks. So is the simple line that McCain means more of the same.

As recently as a year ago, who would have thought that Hillary Clinton would have become a powerful stump speaker--the heir to Ted Kennedy and Hubert Humphrey? On Tuesday night, she gave as effective a campaign speech as a runner-up has ever delivered for a victorious rival. Shrewdly, she began with a wholehearted endorsement of Obama, getting the question of whether she would do that out of the way immediately. Then, she appealed directly to her die-hard supporters to join her in backing Obama “for the same reasons” they had supported her. The feminism that infused her speech, the stories of the human hardship she had heard about on the campaign trail, the reprise of the greatest hits from the primary season--all were addressed to the more than 25 percent of her supporters whom, the pollsters say, have yet to move over to Obama. Some observers are criticizing her for not praising Obama more directly, but such rhetoric would be less effective with the Hillary fans-turned-swing voters than the appeals she made to sisterhood and solidarity in support of a generic Democrat against a generic Republican.

Has Hillary Clinton been disloyal to Barack Obama? No. Has Barack Obama dissed Hillary Clinton? No. Compared to the tortured relationships between Richard Nixon and Nelson Rockefeller in 1960, Hubert Humphrey and Eugene McCarthy in 1968, Gerald Ford and Ronald Reagan in 1976, and Jimmy Carter and Ted Kennedy in 1980, the Obama-Clinton saga is sweetness and light.

For the Democrats, it’s time to turn their rhetorical fire on McCain and Bush, and away from each other. Tuesday night, they started showing that they get it.