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.
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.