'What the American People Need to Hear'


At some point tonight I got a rare glimpse of how some of the rest of America saw the convention: CNN cutting out Joe Biden's speech, so that Judy Woodruff could tell viewers about what John Kerry "needs to tell the American people."

To borrow from the contemporary American political songbook, Judy Woodruff has no goddamned clue about what John Kerry "needs" to tell the American people, nor about what the American people "need" to hear, nor about the "American people," period. Few people do; and I'm guessing being a millionaire Beltway newsgal does not improve the perspective.

The last time I watched a Democratic nominee deliver his convention speech, the experience was so bruising that I eventually shifted my vote to Ralph Nader, and predicted with much certainty that the wooden kiss with awful Tipper would backfire horribly. Instead, it was acclaimed as a seminal, bounce-producing moment.

More recently, I decided not to vote for Arnold Schwarzenegger, despite being originally inclined to, because he didn't to much of anything in his gubernatorial campaign to woo me -- he just campaigned on being famous, and "cleaning house in Sacramento." So I voted for Jack Grisham of TSOL.

The point is not that I'm typical, it's that no one is typical, especially journalists covering political conventions, and so their filters are skewed to the point of, at best, refracting truth, rather than reflecting it. To cite one example: One of the two or three biggest themes and subtexts of this four-day gathering was race, civil rights, and minority concerns. Did you see much written about this, from me or anyone else? I'd guess not, due to the fact that most of the reporters are white, and concerned with other issues.

I was on the Hugh Hewitt show Wednesday, and he asked me if I thought Michael Moore was going to be the '92 Pat Buchanan of this convention, or whether I thought the Democratic message was alienating swing voters. Well, I don't freakin' know, and I can't count on one hand the number of people who would have anything interesting to say about it.

All of which is a long and tired way of saying, we have no idea whether this was the Speech Americans Needed to Hear, or a sign of Democratic things to come, or a harbinger of their inevitable decline, or merely perhaps a way to weave together that much-ballyhooed "unity." We don't know how this will affect the undecideds in Ohio and Florida, we don't know if this will energize the base while attracting independents, we don't know if the American public will hold Kerry to every fool thing he said in those agonizing 55 minutes. We don't know jack.

Mostly, we can try to parse the words, figure out whether they might become policy or predict behavior, and then judge whether it will affect our voting (or non-voting) calculus, and not much more. I'm voting for the guy, but I was going in, and my enthusiasm has not grown one half of a percentage point after this extended exposure. Mostly, I agree with this assessment by fellow gonna-vote-for-him opinion journalist Matthew Yglesias, with whom I watched the speech:

Not every speech needs specifics and not every speech needs to be short, but if your speech is going to be long, then it really ought to have some specifics. Otherwise it's just bloated. Mainly, I'm pissed about Iraq. How to handle Iraq is the most important question facing the president and he just punted. On other looming foreign policy issues (Iran, North Korea, Sudan) where, again, the president can pretty much do whatever he wants we are left with no idea of what a President Kerry would want to do. Nor do we even have a particularly smart backward-looking critique of the Iraq War. It's bad, of course, that the president wasn't straight with the American people about the case for war. Nevertheless, if the deception had been in service of a wildly successful policy, this would be the kind of thing one could more-or-less shrug off. Similarly, contrary to Kerry's accusation Bush didn't go into Iraq without a plan, he went in with a bad plan. But Kerry doesn't get into any of this. Nor did he so much as mention our general strategic situation in the Middle East, offering an opinion one way or the other about the alliances with Israel, Turkey, Saudi Arabia, and Egypt.

And then there was the silliness about outsourcing which I'm quite sure Kerry doesn't believe but couldn't risk throwing in anyway.

It's very possible that all of that doesn't matter at the least; that winning the election is what counts, justifications and means can be malleable in service of that goal, and so on. Jesse Walker's right -- some of us are just not going to be the target audience; not now, maybe not ever. It's possible, should our needs overlap, that Kerry tonight did the best pragmatic thing possible to unseat our common opponent. But his wind-up is weird, and political calculation is something I just don't get. I just find it curious that perhaps the same thing could be said of many of the country's leading journalists, yet they go on yammering about "what the American people need to hear." I think they need to hear Van Halen I (as opposed to that filthy Van Hagar crap they piped in at the end of tonight), and other than that I have no useful suggestion.