Barack Obama Has Learned: The Clintons Will Never Go Away

Obama made concessions to the Clintons because he had to.

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The always insightful Toby Harnden of the Daily Telegraph has a nice blogpost on the Obama campaign's agreement that Hillary Clinton's name will be put in nomination at the Democratic National Convention and its allowing Hillary Clinton to give a prime-time speech on Tuesday night and Bill Clinton to give a prime-time speech on Wednesday night. However, the former president's speech will not be scheduled for the single hour, starting at 10 p.m. Eastern, that is reserved for the vice presidential nominee. (But will Bill stay within the time limit? He didn't when he gave the nomination speech for Michael Dukakis in 1988, and was cheered when he finally said, "In conclusion.")

Harnden scoffs at the idea that the Obama campaign made these concessions voluntarily. I think that in this case the spin may have been accurate. Here's the problem the Obama campaign faces: Nearly half the delegates on the floor were picked by Hillary Clinton. There's a lot of anecdotal evidence that many of these Clinton supporters are unreconciled to the Obama candidacy.

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  • As are many Clinton voters: The recent Pew poll showed only 72 percent of them are supporting Obama against John McCain. A large mass of unreconciled delegates can be a problem for a presidential nominee. At the 1980 Democratic National Convention about 40 percent of the delegates were for Edward Kennedy, and Jimmy Carter's forces continually lost control of the timing and demeanor of the convention. There were enough Kennedy delegates to defeat a motion to suspend the rules, which requires a two-thirds majority, and House Speaker Tip O'Neill, who was chairing the convention, was not going to jam things through on a bogus voice vote. So the Carter campaign had to negotiate with the Kennedy campaign: The Kennedyites would demand a platform plank with another $4 billion or so of CETA public-sector jobs in return for allowing the proceedings to go back on schedule in the prime time hours.

    I was privy to this because I was working on the podium for the Kennedy campaign. It came about this way: I was working for Democratic pollster Peter Hart, who had done polling for the Kennedy campaign, and Carl Wagner, one of the managers of the Kennedy campaign, picked me to represent it on the podium. This was a plum assignment: A podium pass gets you anywhere at the convention, and Tip O'Neill made sure that there was always plenty of good food in the green room under the podium. (Delegates had to stand in line to get Madison Square Garden hot dogs.) In the disputes that arose, the Kennedy campaign was represented by Harold Ickes and the Carter campaign by Bob Torricelli, two tough hombres.

    O'Neill, as I recall, stayed carefully neutral between the incumbent president (whom he couldn't stand) and his home state senator. At one point a little after 8 p.m., at the beginning of vital prime time, Ickes threatened a floor vote on some procedural point and Torricelli threatened back. A floor vote would have consumed an hour or so, and O'Neill was not going to have that. He banged down his gavel and declared that the convention was temporarily adjourned. His aide Kirk O'Donnell, a brilliant political operator who died much too young, told Ickes and Torricelli to come back to them when they reached a compromise. Reporters buzzed around the podium and asked what was going on. It took about 10 minutes for the hot-tempered negotiators to reach an agreement, and then O'Neill placidly declared the convention back into session. I've always had great respect for the way O'Neill handled this. He wasn't going to be muscled around by anybody, not by the Kennedys, not by the president of the United States. (I should add that these memories are pretty dim now, and I may have some of these details wrong. But I didn't take any notes and this is how I remember these things.)

    The Obama campaign doesn't want anything like this going on at their convention. The proportion of Clinton delegates (at least those originally chosen to support Clinton; some like Clinton herself will cast their votes for Obama) will be higher than the proportion of Kennedy delegates in 1980. Hostile delegates can make a lot of noise in the convention hall—or they can be eerily quiet when the nominee's operatives want them to cheer. Controlling the decibel level of the hall is one of the chief challenges of the nominee's team: I remember that in 1988, the Dukakis people kept the cheering level down during vice presidential nominee Lloyd Bentsen's speech, to make sure that the cheering would be a lot louder during Dukakis's. (How do I know? One of them, Tad Devine I think, told me so on the floor.) That, I think, helps to explain why Obama is giving his acceptance speech in Invesco field, where Clinton supporters will be far outnumbered by Obama supporters, rather than in the convention hall, where there will be approximately equal numbers of Clinton and Obama delegates.

    And it explains why they were ready to allow a roll call. They can schedule that for odd hours when there won't be much television coverage (like the "rolling roll call" that took place intermittently at George W. Bush's convention). As for the two Clinton speeches, how could they avoid them? They have to let Hillary have her say, given how many delegates she has. And they can hardly ignore the only politically successful Democratic president of the last 40 years. That means there's a risk that the convention will not be an ideal television extravaganza for the Obama campaign. But that's the price they pay for not sweeping the primaries. Hillary Clinton won more popular votes and more delegates in the primaries than Barack Obama. Obama won the nomination because of the big delegate margins he won in caucuses and because superdelegates went along with him. Nothing is free in politics; there is some question about when you pay the price. Obama will pay the price of not sweeping the primaries in March and April on Tuesday and Wednesday nights. Then he'll have a chance to make up for that on Thursday.