DENVER — In our history and hopes, the American West looms large: a field of dreams for new beginnings, a limitless expanse in which big risks yield big rewards and faith in the future is as lofty as the Rockies.
So it is appropriate that the Democrats have come here, in the shadow of those mountains, to launch an unprecedented presidential candidacy — Sen. Barack Obama’s — at a time when voters are deeply, uncharacteristically, fearful about their own and their country’s future.
As the first “person of color” to be a major-party standard-bearer, and as the first born after 1960, Obama by his very being represents change. But it remains to be seen whether, as he says, he is the change we have been waiting for.
That is Obama's challenge in Denver: to begin to show in earnest that he is the right change. And to do that, Obama has to begin to show that he has the will and the wherewithal to renew broad-based prosperity.
If Obama and his running mate, Sen. Joe Biden, have one goal, it is to convince voters that the Democrats will restore the New West’s sense of optimism — and economic growth — to the country at large, and not just in certain places and certain upper reaches.
The war in Iraq and other foreign policy concerns will loom large, but the basic point that Democrats will make here is two-fold: that only they (and not Sen. John McCain) represent change, and that only they (and not McCain) know how to restore economic vigor to the middle class after eight years of Republican greed, mismanagement and devotion to rigid ideology.
Sen. McCain and his team (running mate TBD) are watching and responding minute-by-minute, eager to pounce on any signs of division and doubt among the Democrats here in Denver. The GOP will also be on the lookout for evidence that Democrats, despite their claims to be champions of fairness, are beholden to the very fat cats and corporate lobbyists Obama claims to despise.
Let the games begin
The 2008 campaign has gone on so long — and yet it is only beginning in earnest. The sprint begins here this week: a wall-to-wall relay race of conventions, debates and TV advertising blitzes. It will cost more than any campaign in history, but in some sense that is to be expected: voters sense that the stakes are enormous.
The convention will underscore the history-making nature of the 2008 campaign. Obama is not only the first African-American nominee, he is the first with a parent born outside the U.S. since Woodrow Wilson. For the first time in history, two members of Congress are running against each other. For the first time in history, presidential campaigns can speak discretely to tens of millions of voters in real time — through the Internet.
As the Democrats gather, the race is closer than most analysts thought it would be — a near dead-heat in the national popularity contest. The Obama-Biden ticket will be looking for a major lift out of their convention, especially to shield it from the four-day attack-a-thon the GOP will put on the following week in St. Paul, Minn.
Obama's to-do listTo get that lift of the New West, here is what Obama and his team have to do here:
- Boil down and punch up his still rather muddled economic plan and message. It’s still too complicated, nuanced and vague.
- Look and sound like a forceful leader, not like a former constitutional law professor.
- Get the energy out of Joe Biden without the gabbiness or the gaffes.
- Allow the Clintons their moments in the sun without seeming to hand the convention over to them.
- Make sure that Denver keeps the streets peaceful.
- Avoid too many stories about all the big money that is here — and believe me, it is here.
- Pay homage to the historical watershed of race relations in America without allowing that moment to swallow the convention whole.
- Leave here with a relatively happy and unified party. The last time the Democrats did that (when they did not already have the White House), was 1992. Obama needs to have that dinner with Bill Clinton. He could tell him how it’s done.