This afternoon I exchanged emails with a friend who's involved in crafting the evening's message, asking him about the standing orders to steer clear of any personal attacks on the president or even, it seemed, any invocations of the president's name. "This will not be a Michael Moore event," he told me, after confirming the gist of what I'd read in various press accounts.
Then hours later, as I was leaving the Fleet Center, making my way down an escalator to the first floor, I looked across the few feet separating me from a parallel-running escalator and saw, yes, Michael Moore.
First, I should say, as I side note, that trying to pull off an impromptu interview, with pen and pad, calling out questions from one escalator to another, is a perilous endeavor, as you're apt not to be paying attention when the escalator ends or simply be looking the wrong way. But let's not distract ourselves with that. Just file that away for future reference.
In any case, there I am a few feet from Moore; and it's one of the first times all day when I can think of a question to ask someone where I'm really curious and uncertain as to what the answer will be. So I ask him what he makes of all of this. No attacks on the president. Not even any mention of the man's name. It's like the anti-Michael Moore event. Or rather the non-Michael Moore event. (I caught myself the first time, realizing that hadn't come out precisely as I'd intended.)
Clearly, the guy didn't know what to make of me. And as he breezes by he says, "Oh, Really? I liked it. You don't even have to say it. Everyone knows how bad it is."
Think what you will about Michael Moore or evening one of the convention, I think that sums up precisely what this event is all about and the dynamic on which it's operating. I've seen a slew of articles today arguing that the Democrats must energize their 'base' while not alienating the swing voters John Kerry needs to clinb from the mid-40s past 50%.
But this strikes me as a tired conventional wisdom that has little to do with what's actually happening here.
To be in the hall tonight -- or even to have watched the Democrats closely for the last five or six months -- is to know that that tension or trade-off hardly exists.
When it first occurred to me to write this post I was going to say that partisan Democrats have decided to give Kerry a free hand in appealing to independents and swing voters. But that doesn't get it quite right. That was the case in 1992 when the party's core voters, after twelve years out of the White House, were willing to give Bill Clinton all sorts of leeway with what most viewed as his DLC heterodoxies. But something different is at work here.
Among Democrats, the rejection of this president is so total, exists on so many different levels, and is so fused into their understanding of all the major issues facing the country, that it doesn't even need to be explicitly evoked. The headline of Susan Page's piece in USA Today reads: "Speakers offer few barbs, try to stay warm and fuzzy." But the primetime speeches were actually brimming with barbs, and rather jagged ones at that. They were just woven into the fabric of the speeches, fused into rough-sketched discussions of policy, or paeans to Kerry.
Perhaps it's a touchy analogy, but like voters who understood the code-words Republicans once (and often still do) used to flag hot-button racial issues they dared not voice openly, these Democrats could hear the most scathing attacks on President Bush rattling through the speeches they heard tonight.