Douglas Alexander's Democratic Convention diary

On stage, Obama spoke truth from power - the essential task of a political leader.

How to win friends....

I arrive on Wednesday afternoon by direct flight from Gatwick to Douglas International Airport (honestly, that's its name!) in Charlotte, NC, just as Air Force One lands at the nearby Air National Guard Base.

In the sweltering line for a taxi - it's 86 degrees - I hear that all flights out of Charlotte have been delayed to allow the President's plane to land ... I guess that's all part of the plan for building broader support in this vital swing state!

The Come Back Kid returns.

One man who is famous for making friends in the Democratic Party - or anywhere - is Bill Clinton. Back in 2000, I sat with Ed Miliband high in the Staples Centre in Los Angeles as Clinton transfixed the crowd at what was supposed to be Al Gore's Convention. He hasn't lost his touch and his speech on Wednesday night once again had the delegates in raptures.

Its central theme - "We're all in this together" - was not unfamiliar to British ears, so the next morning I sought out the man with whom I first associated with those words - Frank Luntz. Frank is now a commentator for both CBS and Fox News, but you might also remember him from the focus groups he ran for Newsnight. Back in the spring of 2008, he gave a presentation to Republican Congressional Candidates that recommended the use of the line "We're all in this together".

Over breakfast in a downtown grill, he tells me he arrived at the phrase after much testing when his research showed hard pressed voters didn't welcome a politician talking about sacrifice...as they felt they were already making enough sacrifices, thank you very much. Luntz is genuinely effusive in his praise of Clinton's performance the night before: "It's the most effective political deconstruction I have ever seen. And it will matter," he tells me."It's given every Democrat their talking points for the next 8 weeks." He goes on, "It wasn't really an endorsement of Barack Obama, but an incredible indictment of Mitt Romney. Bill Clinton's a one man war room."

E Pluribus Unum

It's to one of the veterans of the original War Room in Little Rock that I turn next. Simon Rosenberg is an old friend who runs the Washington based centre-left think-tank The New Democratic Network. He's also a leading expert on the demographic shifts transforming American politics.

The contrast between the all-white crowd in Tampa last week and the hugely diverse delegations here in Charlotte tells a powerful story. In a bar crowded with delegates, donors, lobbyists, and journalists, Simon shouts his explanation for this, "Barack Obama whose slogan is 'Forward' is the first President of the new emerging demographics of the twenty first century. He's a symbol of transition from a country dominated by white Europeans to a country that'll be majority non-white within 30 years."

And this matters deeply to US politics. As Simon goes on to explain, in the 1960s, America was 90% white and 10% black. Today, it is 65% white and 35% people of colour, and it's on track to be majority non-white by 2040. "Not only did America's economy become globalised in recent decades, but so did its people," shouts my ever hoarser friend. Little wonder the growing diversity of the Democratic Party is on such glorious display on the Convention stage - and the Convention floor.

Following in Family Footsteps

Talking about the 1960s reminds me that while it's my first visit to North Carolina, it turns out I'm following in family footsteps. Back in Easter 1960, my mum and dad, then fresh out of Glasgow University and studying for a year in New York, also made the journey south to attend a special conference. There they queued to hear a young Baptist - and were spat at by white passersby for their trouble. The conference was a gathering of the Southern Christian Leadership, bringing civil rights protesters together, and the young Baptist preacher was Martin Luther King.

Little could my parents have imagined that, fifty years later, their son would return to North Carolina to hear another young African American .... who also just happens to be the 44th President of the United States.

My Kingdom for a Pass

By Thursday afternoon, all minds are turning to the finale of the Convention, the President's acceptance of the party's nomination. All has not gone smoothly for the campaign officials planning the event. The speech was due to be made at the Bank of America Stadium - which is outdoor and has a capacity of over 70,000 - but on Wednesday the venue is suddenly changed to the Time Warner Cable Centre, where the rest of the Convention has been taking place. The explanation that's given is the risk of rain, but nobody seems very sure why the decision has changed when apparently the forecast hasn't.

Anyway, 70,000 just doesn't go in to 20,000, so it suddenly seems like everyone is cajoling, begging and pleading for a pass to get in for the big speech. Donna Brazille proves my saviour and I get there early. David Miliband is delayed at a dinner, and so has to queue during one of the temporary lock downs, which the Daily Mail gleefully show in a photo apparently taken on someone's mobile. Quite why anyone would care is beyond me.

In the hall, John Kerry tears into the Republicans on foreign policy. The biggest cheers he get from delegates - given the difficulty Democrats have had since Tampa in answering Ronald Reagan's old question - is when he asks "Is Osama Bin Laden better off than he was 4 years ago?"

Earlier in the day, I'd grabbed a cup of coffee with Madeleine Albright - Clinton's Secretary of State - and still well connected and wise in the arena of foreign policy. What she tells me convinces me that the new Secretary of State, if Obama wins (a contest widely thought, here in Charlotte, to be between John Kerry and UN Ambassador Susan Rice), will not have an empty inbox on day one.

Speaking to America

Obama takes to the stage timed precisely around the networks' coverage. There are 20,000 of us packed into the hall, but his real audience are the TV viewers scattered across battleground states like Iowa, Colorado, Ohio and Virginia. It is undecided voters in these states that will ultimately decide the outcome of a race that's been tight ever since Romney secured the Republican nomination in April

During the day, I'd chatted with Philip Kent, the chairman and chief executive of Turner Broadcasting, who own CNN. He's the man who brought Piers Morgan to the states and he tells me that the Convention should boost ratings for the network. For as well as the dial metering and the instant polling the other number the campaign staff will be studying anxiously will be the TV viewing figures.

Those figures weren't good for Romney and the Republicans last week in Tampa as his speech was watched by only 30.3million over eleven TV networks.....down from the 40milion over seven TV networks that watched John McCain deliver his acceptance speech four years ago.

A Speech....

In retrospect, it's clear that there was a powerful logic and a clear plan behind the main speeches here in Charlotte. Michelle's task was to defend Obama's character. Clinton's task was to defend Obama's record. And Obama's task was to set out his plan for America's future.

And that's exactly what he did. On stage, he wasn't just Commander-in-Chief; he was Educator-In-Chief, as he set out his vision for America's future success. It was a different and more sober speech than his acceptance address four years ago in a vast Denver Stadium - when his soaring rhetoric matched the mood of hope that would carry him all the way to the White House.

The main theme of the President's powerful speech was an effort to turn the focus of his re-election bid on the rebuilding of the economy. At a time of massive challenge for western economies and societies, he spoke truth from power - the essential task of a political leader.

By any measure, it has proved a strong Convention for the Democrats here in North Carolina. The speeches were strong and their messages clear. Today, as the delegates started their long trek home, they are, in the phrase Obama made famous four years ago, "Fired Up. Ready to Go!"

And a Taxi Ride...

When I look back on this week in Charlotte, however, I'll remember more than just the speeches and the schmaltz. I'll also remember Ephron, the taxi driver who gave me a ride back to my motel late one night after the speeches had finished. His family came originally from Ethiopia. He's 36 and has two kids almost the same age as mine. He works all week driving the cab, but he last saw a doctor three years ago. That's because he doesn't have any health insurance. And with quiet determination he told me "That's why I'm voting for Barack Obama".

Douglas Alexander is the shadow foreign secretary.

Barack Obama with Bill Clinton at the Democratic National Convention in North Carolina. Photograph: Getty Images.

Douglas Alexander is the shadow foreign secretary and Labour MP for Paisley and Renfrewshire South.

GETTY
Show Hide image

Erdogan’s purge was too big and too organised to be a mere reaction to the failed coup

There is a specific word for the melancholy of Istanbul. The city is suffering a mighty bout of something like hüzün at the moment. 

Even at the worst of times Istanbul is a beautiful city, and the Bosphorus is a remarkable stretch of sea. Turks get very irritated if you call it a river. They are right. The Bosphorus has a life and energy that a river could never equal. Spend five minutes watching the Bosphorus and you can understand why Orhan Pamuk, Turkey’s Nobel laureate for literature, became fixated by it as he grew up, tracking the movements of the ocean-going vessels, the warships and the freighters as they steamed between Asia and Europe.

I went to an Ottoman palace on the Asian side of the Bosphorus, waiting to interview the former prime minister Ahmet Davu­toglu. He was pushed out of office two months ago by President Recep Tayyip Erdogan when he appeared to be too wedded to the clauses in the Turkish constitution which say that the prime minister is the head of government and the president is a ceremonial head of state. Erdogan was happy with that when he was prime minister. But now he’s president, he wants to change the constitution. If Erdogan can win the vote in parliament he will, in effect, be rubber-stamping the reality he has created since he became president. In the days since the attempted coup, no one has had any doubt about who is the power in the land.

 

City of melancholy

The view from the Ottoman palace was magnificent. Beneath a luscious, pine-shaded garden an oil tanker plied its way towards the Black Sea. Small ferries dodged across the sea lanes. It was not, I hasten to add, Davutoglu’s private residence. It had just been borrowed, for the backdrop. But it reminded a Turkish friend of something she had heard once from the AKP, Erdogan’s ruling party: that they would not rest until they were living in the apartments with balconies and gardens overlooking the Bosphorus that had always been the preserve of the secular elite they wanted to replace.

Pamuk also writes about hüzün, the melancholy that afflicts the citizens of Istanbul. It comes, he says, from the city’s history and its decline, the foghorns on the Bosphorus, from tumbledown walls that have been ruins since the fall of the Byzantine empire, unemployed men in tea houses, covered women waiting for buses that never come, pelting rain and dark evenings: the city’s whole fabric and all the lives within it. “My starting point,” Pamuk wrote, “was the emotion that a child might feel while looking through a steamy window.”

Istanbul is suffering a mighty bout of something like hüzün at the moment. In Pamuk’s work the citizens of Istanbul take a perverse pride in hüzün. No one in Istanbul, or elsewhere in Turkey, can draw comfort from what is happening now. Erdogan’s opponents wonder what kind of future they can have in his Turkey. I think I sensed it, too, in the triumphalist crowds of Erdogan supporters that have been gathering day after day since the coup was defeated.

 

Down with the generals

Erdogan’s opponents are not downcast because the coup failed; a big reason why it did was that it had no public support. Turks know way too much about the authoritarian ways of military rule to want it back. The melancholy is because Erdogan is using the coup to entrench himself even more deeply in power. The purge looks too far-reaching, too organised and too big to have been a quick reaction to the attempt on his power. Instead it seems to be a plan that was waiting to be used.

Turkey is a deeply unhappy country. It is hard to imagine now, but when the Arab uprisings happened in 2011 it seemed to be a model for the Middle East. It had elections and an economy that worked and grew. When I asked Davutoglu around that time whether there would be a new Ottoman sphere of influence for the 21st century, he smiled modestly, denied any such ambition and went on to explain that the 2011 uprisings were the true succession to the Ottoman empire. A century of European, and then American, domination was ending. It had been a false start in Middle Eastern history. Now it was back on track. The people of the region were deciding their futures, and perhaps Turkey would have a role, almost like a big brother.

Turkey’s position – straddling east and west, facing Europe and Asia – is the key to its history and its future. It could be, should be, a rock of stability in a desperately un­stable part of the world. But it isn’t, and that is a problem for all of us.

 

Contagion of war

The coup did not come out of a clear sky. Turkey was in deep crisis before the attempt was made. Part of the problem has come from Erdogan’s divisive policies. He has led the AKP to successive election victories since it first won in 2002. But the policies of his governments have not been inclusive. As long as his supporters are happy, the president seems unconcerned about the resentment and opposition he is generating on the other side of politics.

Perhaps that was inevitable. His mission, as a political Islamist, was to change the country, to end the power of secular elites, including the army, which had been dominant since Mustafa Kemal Atatürk created modern Turkey after the collapse of the Ottoman empire. And there is also the influence of chaos and war in the Middle East. Turkey has borders with Iraq and Syria, and is deeply involved in their wars. The borders do not stop the contagion of violence. Hundreds of people have died in the past year in bomb attacks in Turkish cities, some carried out by the jihadists of so-called Islamic State, and some sent by Kurdish separatists working under the PKK.

It is a horrible mix. Erdogan might be able to deal with it better if he had used the attempted coup to try to unite Turkey. All the parliamentary parties condemned it. But instead, he has turned the power of the state against his opponents. More rough times lie ahead.

Jeremy Bowen is the BBC’s Middle East editor. He tweets @bowenbbc

This article first appeared in the 28 July 2016 issue of the New Statesman, Summer Double Issue