The complicated politics of the Democratic Party took center stage on the second night of the party’s national convention in Denver as New York Senator Hillary Clinton claimed a primetime speaking role. Her appearance, arranged with all the complexity of a wartime peace settlement, came as the party sought to put the bitter primary season behind it to unify behind its nominee Senator Barack Obama.
It is not unusual for a formal rival to the presumptive nominee to be given an opportunity to address the convention, albeit perhaps not in prime time. In most instances it is viewed as a matter of respect; a gesture meant to salute a former rival and a call for unity among the party faithful. The speaking lineup in Denver was touted the same way. Senator Clinton, did, after all, run a strong, historic and competitive race during the primary season and served as an inspiration to women as she challenged the gender exclusivity of presidential politics. Still, the bitterness of the primary season suggests the assignment of speaking slots to the Clintons was borne more out of threats, perceived and real, than an as act of reconciliation. And that is unfortunate.
The speech delivered by Senator Clinton was masterful. And hopefully it will put to rest some of the resentment, from women and Blacks, toward each other and toward Senators Clinton and Obama, that had built up over the course of the many caucuses and primaries held last winter and spring. In many ways the anticipation of what Senator Clinton would say was far greater than that of Senator Obama; and the stakes were higher.
If there were any hints of resentment, any signs of holding back, they were wiped away by Senator Clinton’s grand slam. Her declaration that “Barack Obama is my candidate and he must be our President” put to rest any notion that the junior senator from New York would be less than enthusiastic in her support of Senator Obama. Her cry of “No Way, No How, No McCain” was a rallying cry to her supporters who have been sitting on the fence, some suggesting they would vote for her Republican rival over Mr. Obama. Senator Clinton’s speech should put to rest any suspicion that the Clintons would be less than enthusiastic in their campaigning for the nominee over the next several months.
Senator Clinton’s speech should do one other thing. It takes away the crutch some Clinton supporters, mostly older white females, have been leaning on to oppose Senator Obama. It means those voters can no longer hide behind the Clintons in opposing Barack Obama. They must stand on their own, and some, not all, but many, will have to also be willing to expose their racial animus if they switch their allegiance to Senator McCain. In one fell swoop, Senator Clinton wiped clean the excuses some of her supporters have been using to justify their unwillingness to line up behind Obama.
As political theatre, it does not get much better than what was witnessed on the floor of the Pepsi Center on Tuesday night. Senator Clinton’s speech will go down in the annals of memorable oratory in political convention history, joining Bobby Kennedy’s emotional address at the 1964 Democratic National Convention in Atlantic City, Ronald Reagan’s speech to Republicans in 1980, New York Governor Mario Cuomo’s show stopper in 1984 in San Francisco, Texas Governor Anne Richard’s lampooning of George H. Bush at the 1988 Democratic convention and Rev. Jesse Jackson’s powerful speech the same year.
The difference this year is that a headliner’s speech was make or break for the party’s nominee. Had Senator Clinton’s speech left any room for her supporters to question the legitimacy of Senator Obama’s candidacy, the Democratic Party could have kissed the November election away. Instead, what Senator Obama and party Chairman Howard Dean got was a sendoff that should propel the party faithful into action.