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Josh Marshall

Josh Marshall is editor and publisher of TalkingPointsMemo.com.

Articles by Josh

Early this evening I noted that the tone of the Democratic party assembled here in Boston really is quite different than it was in New Hampshire, and much different from what it was in mid-2003. Democratic 'rage' and 'Bush-bashing' was to a real extent a product of Republican spin. But not altogether.

So why the difference? Certainly it's not because opposition to the president has waned in any way. And I think the fact that the convention is meant to appeal to the swing voting audience actually doesn't play that great a role in the change.

I think there are two main reasons -- and they're fundamental rather than cosmetic.

Reason number one has to do with understanding the dynamics that animated the 2003-04 primary contest. On the surface, the fiery rhetoric and animus of 2003 and early 2004 were directed at President Bush. And to some degree of course they were. But the punch of that rhetoric derived not so much from Democrats' antipathy for President Bush as from a pitched battle, almost a rebellion, within the Democratic party -- the grassroots of the Democratic party insisting that Washington Democrats were compromising with the president over particulars when he was leading the country in a direction that had to be opposed across the board. Fiery rhetoric against President Bush was fiery rhetoric against compromise and accomodation with him. In other words, it was to a very real degree aimed at other Democrats.

The specifics and the rights-and-wrongs of that intra-party debate are complicated and needn't detain us here. But understanding that intra-party debate explains why the tone here is so different. The Democratic party is now deeply united around the proposition that President Bush is moving the country in the wrong direction on almost every front and must be opposed head-on. With that question settled within the party, what is there to be angry about? Is there anger at President Bush? Sure. But no one here is talking to President Bush. So opposition, yes. But anger, much less so. Unity isn't simply a reason or a tool to stifle anger. In a sense, it has eliminated it.

Point two is related to point one. Anger is often, and rage is almost always, an emotion rooted in powerlessness. That was certainly the position of Democrats in early 2003 (on so many levels), though less so as the year went on. These Democrats don't feel powerless. The mood is one of cautious optimism that they can drive the president from office, that the wind is at their backs. That too changes the emotional tone dramatically.

This column by Rich Lowry in National Review Online makes some very shrewd points about Barack Obama's speech Tuesday evening. Praise across the political divide is often rich with backhanded compliments and disingenuousness. He includes some digs. But this is something different.

I'm really enjoying this Wyclef Jean song. But isn't this seriously off-message. I'm surprised it got by the message wizards.

One thing I haven't had much of since I've been here is a sense of how the press is covering this event -- not the quantity of coverage (how many hours an evening), but how they're interpreting it.

Mostly, that's been a matter of the priorities I've given myself, though a relative lack of Internet access has played a role as well. Yet one thing I've heard a lot is this sense that this convention is brimming over with anger and anti-Bush rage and that the organizers are busy tamping it down and doing all they can to keep a lid on the rage.

I haven't see that.

From Republicans this is spin, which is fair enough or at least understandable. From journalists I think it's just laziness or an unhealthy addiction to conventional wisdom. This is my third day now milling through the crowds, listening to conversations, talking with activists and elected officials. And the impression I have is almost exactly the opposite.

This is my third convention. I was at both in 2000.

The Republican convention four years ago was a brimming, often angry convocation. Some of that perception is undoubtedly a product of the prism through which I view these things. But I don't think that's much of it.

Bill Clinton had driven the GOP crazy for eight years, particularly during his second term -- not because of his failings but because of political resilience in spite of them. Partisan Republicans had never really accepted or I think understood how or why he had gotten reelected in 1996. And again and again -- particularly during the Lewinsky mess -- he seemed to rise from the dead. Impeachment was about righteous indignation (or self-righteous indignation, depending on your viewpoint) in spite of political good sense.

Finally, in 2000, with Clinton barred from the ballot, they had their chance. And the backdrop of those pent-up frustrations were ever-present in the hall. Confidence mixed with the animus. But the latter was a constant subtext, though the convention planners went to great lengths to keep the DeLay types under wraps and position Governor Bush as set apart from the partisan antagonisms of the late 1990s.

I remember one speech, perhaps it was Cheney's, I'm not sure. And in that speech there was one rallying cry or veiled remark about Clinton's 'character problems'. And the crowd erupted not with applause but with a sort of rumbling, growing roar that didn't stop.

The Democratic convention in 2000 wasn't the same sort of affair, but it was an angsty setting in its own way. There was a left tired of biting its collective tongue through eight years of Bill Clinton. There was the Gore-Clinton tension, the Gore-Bradley tension, the endless intra-Gore-camp rumbles, and a certain malaise born of having the protection of the presidency for eight years. The party was an odd mix of indifference and near panic. And that, in turn, made the party message-wizards more inclined to dish out red-meat on then-Governor Bush.

This convention is very different from both. There was a mood of anger and frustration and even rage during the Democratic primaries. But not here. In the next post I'll try to give my take on why that is.

I hope it's not an example of the Democrats' organizational muscle. But this morning I've had to abandon the Fleet Center and retreat to a local Starbucks to find reliable Internet access that'll allow me to post some updates.

Yesterday while Barack Obama was speaking, I was making my way around the convention hall floor, trying to listen to the speech while gauging audience reactions. In some ways this is a far inferior way to absorb a speech than simply to watch it on your television screen at home. And I wasn't following every moment word for word. But at some point, perhaps a half or two-thirds into the speech, I could sense a difference in the feel of the crowd and the tenor of Obama's voice. He was electrifying the crowd in a way you seldom see a politician manage to pull off. And I realized I needed to get down as close to the podium as I could.

So I made my way down through the several delegations on the right side of the convention floor and settled in about thirty feet down from Obama's left. What struck me first about Obama is something I've only really seen clearly before in Bill Clinton.

In most politicians -- in most public speakers really -- you can always sense a sort of double motion. You can sense their constant awareness of what they should be doing before they do it, and their inability to get the two to match up. Perhaps this is simply another way of saying that you sense their consciousness of self, the visibility of their artifice, like an actor who looks like he's acting, even if the technical points are hit more or less on key.

Clinton was always different. Whether there was artifice or not, it was seldom visible. His rapport with crowds or individuals was (and is) intuitive. The mastery of voice, sound and expression was always complete. And you could see that Monday night.

As it happens, I don't think that quality in a public speaker is something that can be learned. And on a fundamental level, I don't think it's a matter of artifice, though clearly Clinton has a rhetorical bag of tricks he returns to again and again. It's an emotional quality, an element of personality -- part of that undefinable quality of personal charisma. And that was what was radiating from Obama last night.

This was the passage I found the most powerful, and only in part because of the bare text of the words.

Well, I say to them tonight, there's not a liberal America and a conservative America -- there's the United States of America. There's not a black America and white America and Latino America and Asian America; there's the United States of America. The pundits like to slice-and-dice our country into Red States and Blue States; Red States for Republicans, Blue States for Democrats. But I've got news for them, too. We worship an awesome God in the Blue States, and we don't like federal agents poking around our libraries in the Red States. We coach Little League in the Blue States and have gay friends in the Red States. There are patriots who opposed the war in Iraq and patriots who supported it. We are one people, all of us pledging allegiance to the stars and stripes, all of us defending the United States of America.


Another point on Obama, to which we'll return. Every great public speaker has an emotional touchstone, a tenor that resonates through all they say and do. Clinton's was empathy and expressive emotion -- something that many people gravitated to irresistibly, and others recoiled from. In that regard, Obama seems altogether different. That Clintonite element is barely present with him. The hallmarks are grace and power, even force. (Watch the hands and the eyes.) And that worked well with last night's invocation of national unity.

This will be an odd sort of correction, but one nonetheless. A number of readers have written in to inform me that Jack Ryan, one-time Illinois Senate candidate, actually didn't want to have his wife have sex with other men in front of an audience in a Paris sex club, as I said yesterday evening. He wanted to have sex with his wife in front of an audience in a Paris sex club. I stand corrected, though with the nature of the distinction you do get a sense of why Ryan is no longer in the race.

I'm sitting here a few minutes after nine, waiting for the big event of the evening, Barack Obama's keynote address. It's hard to overestimate how much expectation looms around this guy. The Democratic party yearns for this man's political future like Dick Cheney lusts after the oil and gas fields of the Caspian Sea.

Obama probably would have won the Illinois Senate seat in November by a solid margin regardless. Now it's not clear that it'll even be a contest after his opponent's candidacy collapsed amid his would-be party constituents close-mindedness about his desire to see his movie star wife have sex with other men in Paris sex clubs. So he was sort of a martyr to Babbitry, you might say.

In any case, he'll be the only black man in the Senate; and he'll have a relatively safe seat, as senate seats go. He'll be an instant star of his party. And all the folks who have antennae for political magic are all atwitter over him. I've been watching him give interviews and work the crowd and the tell-tale grace and poise isn't hard to see.

I got a chance to sit down with Senate Minority Leader Tom Daschle this afternoon and ask a few questions. I'll be writing up more of the conversation later this evening or tomorrow. But for the moment, a couple tidbits.

I asked Daschle to name some possible Senate Dem pick-ups that people might not have on their radar screens. Three names: Nancy Farmer in Missouri. Joe Hoeffel in Pennsylvania. Daniel Mongiardo in Kentucky.

Any hope the Senate Intelligence committee might report on any of the second phase of its investigation (i.e., the part that might have anything remotely to do with the Bush administration) prior to the election? "Not a chance."

One thing that is now apparently part of the modern presidential campaign is the laying-on-of-hands photo montage -- the key being visuals of the metaphorical handing off of the political torch and ethereal transmission of politico-cultural Mojo.

I guess Clinton got this started off with those pictures of himself at the Boys Nation ceremony with President Kennedy back in something like 1963. And I think there was some of this with President Bush too, though I can't remember who the luminaries were.

But Kerry's got both of these characters put to shame.

On one of the floors of the Fleet Center -- the third or fourth, I think -- there's a small gallery of Kerry photos. And if you make the rounds of them you see that there's a laying-on-of-hands image for almost every slice of the Democratic soul.

Of course, there's Kerry with Jack Kennedy. But Kerry was actually a hip dude. So, for instance, there's a young Kerry with John Lennon. And then Kerry with Coretta Scott King. And, actually, in a highly literary flourish, there's even John Kerry with Arthur Miller of all people.

(A friend of mine pointed out that there's even a double-layered Marilyn Monroe subtext in that one.)

I'm going to head back later for further analysis.

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