The Other Kinnock Lesson: Sold-Out Stadium Speeches Aren’t Always a Good Thing

DENVER—Joe Biden spoke, and it was a success. But the ghost of a balding Welshman could yet come to haunt the Democratic convention.

Neil Kinnock, the former leader of the British Labor Party, is best known in American circles as the man from whom Biden borrowed some rhetoric during his abortive bid for the presidency in 1988. Back then, Biden got caught adapting comments Kinnock had made about being the first member of his family to go to college. Although the Delaware senator had credited the British pol for the ideas in previous speeches, one occasion on which he did not do so proved disastrous for his White House hopes, leaving him open to the accusation of plagiarism.

Kinnock is now a British lord. He is graciously singing Biden’s praises, telling yesterday’s Times of London, “Joe is a great guy who brings a whole collection of virtues to the Democratic ticket, notably his insight and experience. I really do wish him all the best.”

(Kinnock also revealed that on a visit to Capitol Hill last year, Biden “swung open the door and introduced me as his ‘greatest speechwriter.'”)

One of the pivotal moments of Kinnock’s career offers just as stark and cautionary a lesson for Biden’s running mate, however.

Barack Obama will address a capacity crowd of 75,000 people at Invesco Field here tomorrow night. His aides have spoken of the event as an illustration of their desire to open up the political process to as many people as possible. The combination of the size of the audience and Obama’s prodigious rhetorical gifts has led many Democrats to salivate at the prospect of a landmark occasion.

Not so fast. Kinnock – himself no mean performer on the podium – once held a similar, grandiose set piece in the run-up to an election. It was hailed as a huge success at the time –and soon after came to be seen as a key factor in his party’s shock defeat.

In spring 1992, the British Conservative Party – not unlike the G.O.P. right now – was facing a general election in deeply inhospitable circumstances.

The party’s longtime leader and icon, Margaret Thatcher, had been ousted in an internal “heave” at the end of 1990. Opinion polls of the time that showed Labor leading the Tories by up to 20 points had encouraged Thatcher’s party to throw her overboard despite her three successive general-election triumphs. Her replacement, John Major, was famously lacking in charisma – he would be portrayed in the satirical puppet show Spitting Image as preternaturally gray. His attempts to sand away the rough edges of Thatcherism had met with some success, but Labor remained the strong favorite to win the election.

Polling Day was set for April 10. On April 1, Labor convened in the northern English city of Sheffield for a huge rally in a sports arena. A crowd of around 10,000 showed up. The event itself – replete with pounding music, extravagant light shows and a dramatic entrance by Kinnock and the members of his shadow cabinet – exhibited a sort of pizzazz that had never before been seen in British campaigns.

In the moment, the rally seemed extraordinary. Kinnock’s deputy leader, Roy Hattersley, wrote later, “It was a night of uninhibited euphoria. Even the mediocre speeches were greeted as triumphs of oratory.” The acclaim that greeted Kinnock’s introduction as “the next prime minister” shook the ground.

The Labor leader, unwisely, forgot that the most important audience was not in the hall but at home, in front of the TV. He bopped around the podium manically – not entirely unlike Dennis Kucinich during his speech here on Monday, in fact – proclaiming, “We’re all right! We’re all right!”

Some of the journalists present also lost their bearings, one BBC correspondent describing the event as the most amazing political occasion he had ever witnessed.

The voters begged to differ. Three polls on the morning of the event had shown Labor with a lead of 7, 6 and 4 percent respectively. The two first major surveys afterward showed the lead had evaporated.

In the days that followed, further polling seemed to indicate that floating voters had seen the rally as excessive and triumphalist. On Election Day itself, the Tories bested Labor by more than 7 percent, enough to renew their overall majority in the House of Commons. Kinnock announced his intention to resign as party leader three days later.

It seems unlikely that Obama will let the huge crowd here tomorrow affect him in the same way as befell Kinnock 16 years ago. But the Democrat’s campaign has already been bedeviled by accusations of presumptuousness (that hastily retired faux-presidential seal) and a quasi-messianic quality. The danger is that tomorrow night’s event will feed into those charges rather than vaporize them.

As Kinnock’s example shows, the party faithful and the broad electorate often see the same things through utterly different lenses. Epic events that can seem moving and momentous to the former can look hollow and hubristic to the latter. All Democrats should hope that Obama will not have to learn that lesson the hard way.

The Other Kinnock Lesson: Sold-Out Stadium Speeches Aren’t Always a Good Thing