Bill Clinton as the Anti-Zell Miller
The effectiveness of Bill Clinton’s speech last night was revealed in a response by CNN analyst and long time top Republican strategist Alex Castellanos when he sighed, “You don’t have to come back tomorrow. This convention is done,” Castellanos said. “This will be the moment that probably re-elected Barack Obama.”
His follow-up point had to do with capturing the center, but the emotional response and resignation in his voice was real.
And it was familiar.
I had the same reaction in 2004 when Georgia Senator Zell Miller seemed to crawl out of a cave on Tiger Mountain in the North Georgia hills to deliver one of the most devastating attacks against John Kerry I’d ever seen.
Oh, the styles of the two deliveries were different. Zell’s was angry and righteous and downright mocking. Clinton’s was also sarcastic, but far more explanatory, detailed and, of course, coated with that Clinton smile.
But the two speeches seemed to have captured something similar: the utter inadequacy of the opposition. It was out of the old Southern honor code where public recognition of inner worth must be continually earned, performed and defended. The end result is to leave the opponent as a weakened, socially impotent pariah tamed by the powerful force of the community.
When Zell accused John Kerry of wanting to fight Al Qaeda with spitballs, the goose was cooked. It didn’t matter how factually accurate the charge was. It stuck and it resonated with a wider public unsure of Kerry’s ability to handle national security at a time when Bush still had the electorate’s trust on that issue. I knew it was likely over for Kerry after that; the debates briefly revived Kerry’s chances but it couldn’t reverse what came out of New York that early September evening. Zell did his job. The pit in my stomach was real.
But Zell and BIll had very different convention roles, which is why it’s best to think of Bill Clinton as the anti-Zell. At every modern convention we see the same gang of stock characters:
The Nominees – The most important reason for the convention after all.
The Spouses and Family – Tasked with “humanizing” the politician.
The Party Superstars – There to get the weaker partisans excited.
The Ideologues – There to get the hard-core partisans excited.
The Regular Folks – Testimony from ordinary citizens on why this election has real consequences.
The Young Stars – Creating the new generation of leaders.
But then there are the two characters designed to appeal primarily to the middle:
The Disaffecteds – Those who feel their own party has abandoned them and that a righteous pounding of their “former” party nominee is necessary. Usually partisan apostates, they can be very effective at channeling the changing demographics of realigning parties.
The Reassurers – These are the antidotes to the Disaffecteds, but are also necessary to response directly to the opposition’s central arguments, and to advance the case to wavering undecideds that the party nominee really is the right man for the job.
Sometimes the same person performs more than one of these roles, but each can be found at every convention.
Zell Miller was the most affected “Disaffected” speaker in recent history. His anger revealed the long sense of abandonment from old school Dixiecrats and conservative working class whites at the course of the modern Democratic Party. But it was not delivered in the way Jimmy Carter did in 1972 when he plotted the return of the party to the center four years on (Carter was Zell’s Georgia predecessor in many ways). No, it was given as a hammer blow. A final accusation of betrayal. There was no going back.
Clinton was probably the most effective “Reassurer” at any recent convention for a few reasons. First, his reputation is far higher now than when he was President. Second, Republicans have built him up as the “good Democrat” and tried to drive a wedge between Clinton and Obama in all sorts of ways. And third, Clinton’s delivery did the amazing task of rebutting the entire GOP platform in detail AND making the case for why Obama’s first term laid a critical foundation for a successful second term – all done with the cadences and phrasing that rally both partisans and wavering undecideds.
As the Reassurer, Clinton was the anti-Zell Miller. But the effect may prove the same in the end – to drive home why the candidate must be re-elected and why the pretender to the White House is simply not worthy.