by Jeremy Young | 8/28/2008 02:20:00 PM
(Cross-posted at Open Left, The Wild, Wild Left, Politics & Letters, and Never In Our Names.)

A friend of mine expressed to me the concern that Mark Warner's sucktastic keynote speech at the DNC might doom Obama's presidential hopes. Of course, he told me this before Clinton's and Biden's excellent speeches yesterday, so he may have a different opinion now. In any case, I think that worry is largely unfounded -- keynote addresses don't really make a difference historically in the presidential ticket's chances.

Ask any Democratic political observer what the two most important DNC keynote addresses of the past thirty years were (notice I'm carefully excluding Barbara Jordan's magnificent address of 1976, named by as the fifth greatest recorded speech in American history), and you'll get a pretty uniform response. First they'll mention this speech, which I'm guessing most of you have already seen:

It's the speech that launched Barack Obama's national career, a transcendent peroration linking Obama's personal story with the national story and introducing us to the Rev. Jeremiah Wright's phrase, "the audacity of hope."

Unless you're of a certain age, you're less likely to have seen the second speech.

In 1984, a month and a half before I was born, Mario Cuomo delivered the most important address of his career as the DNC keynoter. At the time, Cuomo was a moderately well-known governor of New York. Though I'd heard plenty of stories about the brilliance of Cuomo's speech, I was surprised when I finally watched it. The shockingly short speech -- less than eight minutes long, and delivered in Cuomo's broad New York drawl -- is the antithesis of Obama's autobiographical odyssey: Cuomo never mentions his own history at all. Nor is it the type of eloquent partisan boilerplate that Barbara Jordan had delivered eight years earlier, or that we saw Joe Biden and Brian Schweitzer indulge in at this week's convention. Instead, Cuomo's address is a brisk and devastating attack on Ronald Reagan's economic triumphalism, using the President's "City on a Hill" address as a foil. Along the way, Cuomo engages in the type of class-based rhetoric that no one but John Edwards can get away with any more (and that, of course, means no one at all). Nevertheless, one gets the feeling that if more Democrats had talked like Cuomo back in 1984, Americans might have come out of their Reaganomic stupor somewhat earlier.

Here's the speech:

Despite the impressiveness of both these speeches, it's important to note that in neither year did the Democratic nominee win the White House. Ironically, in 1984 Walter Mondale's own convention speech may have doomed his prospects. In a disastrous moment of honesty, Mondale announced to the delegates: "Mr. Reagan will raise your taxes, and so will I. He won't tell you; I just did." Despite the prescience of this statement -- Reagan did indeed raise taxes in the aftermath of the election -- the American people were not amused. Mondale went down to defeat by eighteen points in the November election. Similarly, John Kerry lost in 2004 after a series of attacks on his character. In neither case did the brilliant keynote speech of months earlier make any difference in the election.

What the keynote addresses did accomplish was to rocket the keynoters themselves to national prominence. A bad keynote speech doesn't necessarily doom the speaker's Presidential prospects -- disastrous outings by Bill Clinton in 1988 and Evan Bayh in 1996 didn't seem to hurt their chances -- but an excellent one does more than raise the speaker's profile: it makes him an instant frontrunner for the next Presidential election. Both Cuomo and Obama were heavily recruited to run for President in 1988 and 2008, respectively. Obama, as we know, availed himself of this opportunity. Cuomo flirted with the idea in bith 1988 and 1992 before ultimately declining to run in both years, earning himself the nickname "Hamlet on the Hudson." One of my earliest memories was of watching on television, at age eight, Cuomo nominating Bill Clinton for president at the 1992 DNC, and hearing my mother lament that it wasn't Clinton nominating Cuomo instead.

On Tuesday, Mark Warner lost an opportunity to turn himself into an instant celebrity, as Cuomo and Obama had before him. But he didn't do any damage to the Obama ticket. As Walter Mondale learned, the only person who can doom the Democratic ticket at the convention is the Democratic nominee himself. Tonight, we'll see how Obama fares.



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Blogger mark on 8/28/2008 10:50 PM:

Cuoumo was also approached by the Clinton administration to be a nominee as a justice on the Supreme Court. He turned that down as well.


Blogger Jeremy Young on 8/29/2008 12:31 AM:

I suppose some day we will know why the heck he didn't want higher office. I guess he must have had his reasons -- maybe there was a scandal, though I think Pataki would have unearthed it in 1994 if there was, or maybe he just didn't want the job.