A quick review of the most prominently featured speakers over the first three days of the Democratic convention – which ones helped, which ones hurt, and which ones did neither.
- Ted Kennedy: Given what he and his family have meant to the party and the current state of his health, it would have been unthinkable for the Democrats not to have included him in their primetime festivities. The 76-year-old’s surprise appearance and speech – one of his only ventures into public since his diagnosis with a terminal brain tumor – provided drama and surely warmed the hearts of Clinton and Obama delegates alike, not to mention viewers at home. But by its very nature, the speech functioned as a tribute to Kennedy – a chance for Democrats to express their affection for him and to hear him belt out a major speech perhaps for the final time – and not a vehicle for advancing the party’s message. His words didn’t mean as much as the mere fact that he was standing up and delivering them. Kennedy’s convention appearance was essential, but probably didn’t help Obama much in raw political terms. Verdict: Didn’t help or hurt
- Jim Leach: This one looked fantastic on paper – a former 15-term Republican member of Congress taking to the stage just after 10:00 on opening night to explain why he could not support his own party in this election. But while the words of Leach’s address were thoughtful and intelligent, his dry, dispassionate oration ensured that his message was lost on all but a few intellectuals in the viewing audience. Perhaps a more lively Republican for Obama might have had the Zell Miller-ish effect Democrats were hoping for. Verdict: A wasted opportunity.
- Michelle Obama: There was little to quibble about with her speech. Much like Elizabeth Dole’s performance at the 1996 Republican convention, her delivery was strong and forceful, but warm at the same time. And she hit – over and over again – the theme of family, a not-so-subtle effort to defuse the right’s effort to caricature her as a radical, “anti-American” figure. Whether her speech was helpful depends on your view of Obama’s fall imperatives. If you believe that the anti-Michelle campaign by the right had taken a toll and threatened to undermine her husband in the fall, then showcasing her in primetime was a necessary step. But if you believe that it was more important to devote at least one major speech on Monday night to attacking McCain and denting his public image, then Michelle Obama’s address didn’t move the ball down the field. Verdict: Wouldn’t have been a missed opportunity if someone besides Leach had spoken before her.
- Mark Warner: There isn’t really much to say here. Warner’s speech was average in every way. He took a few shots at McCain but mostly highlighted the post-partisan future/past themes that marked his governorship in Virginia and his abortive presidential bid earlier this cycle. Since the broadcast networks no longer cover Democratic keynote addresses (which fall before 10:00 P.M.), it was critical for Warner to dazzle the crowd with a memorable line or a particularly strong delivery, something that would force the networks (and the next day’s newspapers) to give the speech extensive coverage after the fact. He failed. As a keynote speaker, Warner proved himself an unfitting heir to Mario Cuomo, Ann Richards and Barack Obama. Verdict: A wasted opportunity.
- Brian Schweitzer: Consider Schweitzer, the expressive, engaging and humorous Montana governor, the de facto keynote speaker of the 2008 convention. Officially, he was the warm-up act for Hillary Clinton’s speech, but his folksy and rousing eloquence unexpectedly captured the crowd’s interest and excitement – the way a keynote speaker is supposed to. Just as importantly, he was on message, skewering John McCain in accessible and understandable terms and offering perhaps the most coherent oration on energy policy heard from a Democrat this year. Traditionally, the keynote slot is a springboard to a future in national politics. But if this convention produced a future star, it is Brian Schweitzer, and not Mark Warner. Verdict: A very helpful speech.
- Hillary Clinton: The major knocks on the former First Lady’s speech are easy to recite: She talked about herself too much, praised Obama too little, and didn’t sound like she really meant much of it – in other words, she was saying what she had to to retain her viability for 2012 (a theory that wasn’t exactly hurt when an unnamed advisor was quoted saying essentially the same thing in the next day’s New York Times). But the fact is, she did offer repeated and unreserved endorsements of Obama in her speech, she did attack McCaoin aggressively, and her performance was well-received – by her delegates, by Obama’s and (generally) by the opinion-shaping class. If there was one overriding goal for Obama this week, it was to deny the media any ammunition to continue harping on The Rift in the party. Clinton’s speech, and the reaction to it, helped immeasurably toward this end. Verdict: Very helpful.
- Bill Clinton: It was generally assumed that Hillary Clinton would offer praise for Obama in her speech (even if her motives were suepect), but Bill Clinton was much more of a wild card. He arrived in Denver this week seemingly intent on destroying Obama’s unity efforts, but then came Wednesday night. When it was his turn to speak, Clinton delivered a powerful, passionate endorsement of Obama, dwelling only in the earliest moments of his speech on his wife’s primary campaign. He also took aim at McCain, driving home the idea that the Arizonan, while an honorable man, is wrong on the most crucial and overriding issues of the election. None of the hurt feelings and wounded pride that Clinton has flashed over and this year were on display. Most importantly for Obama, the reviews in the media were glowing – after Bill’s and Hillary’s speeches, the idea of party unity now seems plausible. Verdict: Very, very helpful.
- John Kerry: It wasn’t covered by the broadcast networks or even the cable channels, so the audience for the 2004 nominee’s primetime address was limited. But it is winning wide and effusive praise among the netroots. Because of the small audience – and because most Americans’ opinions of Kerry, for better or worse, are fixed – his speech won’t really help or hut Obama. But it’s worth noting simply because Kerry, who spent his entire political career (if not his entire post-pubescent life) cautiously preparing to run for president someday, seems to be a liberated public figure now, with the realization that his White House ambitions probably won’t ever be realized. Verdict: Not helpful or hurtful.
- Joe Biden: A command performance from one of the party’s strongest speakers. To anyone who had doubts, he proved his value to the ticket with his V.P. acceptance speech. On a personal level, he introduced himself as a working-class product of Scranton, a gushingly proud father and grandfather – and a man who loves his 90-year-old mother. He hit all the right policy notes, building up Obama and linking McCain to George W. Bush and sounding the “that’s not change” refrain. And when in the closing minutes of his speech he shifted to national security, the confidence and authority in his voice multiplied – something that should prove very helpful in the fall V.P. debate. Biden said the right words, but much more importantly, he connected on a personal level. Verdict: Very helpful.
- As of early Wednesday evening, then, the 2008 Democratic convention has been mostly helpful to Obama. The earlier speeches this week probably didn’t do much for him, but the highest profile speakers – the Clintons and Biden – were very strong. A similar performance by Obama tonight should make this convention clear net-plus for him.