Night Two: The Early Vibe? A Psychodrama of Restraint

DENVER — The Democratic National Convention started off with a strange vibe that might be summed up in one word: restraint. Much is being pent-up here; emotions are being held in check.

One obvious aspect of this comes from the Clinton-Obama rift, which is real, though generally misunderstood. In truth, there are two very separate issues that have been conflated: the reticence of many Hillary Clinton voters to commit to pulling the lever for Barack Obama, and the inner tensions among the elites, insiders, and activists.

The first is politically important but not extraordinary, and has little to do with the mood here in Denver. Remember that millions of people who are not particularly party-oriented took part in the super-hyped Clinton-Obama primaries; many millions voted for Clinton for reasons that do not transfer readily to Obama. The vast majority will ultimately vote for him (some 80 percent already say they will), but many will not; the same would have been true had any other Democrat emerged from that race. (And the same is true among Republicans for McCain.)

But what’s affecting Democrats in Denver is quite different, and as old as politics. Politics is a game of alliances and power, which can have very crass effects on the psyche that — at the risk of sounding psycho-analytical — often gets masked with self-righteousness, self-pity, and/or misdirected anger. Four years on, for example, some Massachusetts political players are now able to talk (privately) about how much they had, despite themselves, mentally already packed their bags for the inevitable jobs waiting for them in and around the Kerry administration; and how long the disappointment and finger-pointing distressed them and their political relationships.

In simplified terms, a lot of that is going on with the Clinton camp right now, and it has people on all sides walking on eggshells. Many Obama delegates, and even many former Clinton supporters, are outraged at the concessions being made to Hillary and Bill — but they won’t be caught dead saying so on the record. Clinton delegates are biting their tongues as well, aware that every display of support for their preferred candidate will be seen as sabotage against the party and the chances of winning in November.

But the Clinton-Obama tensions are not the only ones contributing to this sense of restraint here. There is also a strange absence of the usual hostilities toward the other party — anger and outrage that every Democrat here feels over a hundred different pressure points, and that typically gets released in mass, cultish frenzy on the convention floor.

John Kerry made the mistake of minimizing the red-meat attacks at the 2004 convention. Perhaps that is contributing to the sense of uncertainty about how, and how much, to release that negative energy this year. More likely, Obama’s strategists are cautiously treading the waters, laying out the positive, "family-friendly" Obama introduction before moving into the attacks. In any event, the first day offered little cathartic assault on the hideous, outrageous abuses of the Bush administration, or on McCain’s record.

And there is still one more emotion — a big one — being held in check in Denver right now. That is black pride.

Not the old, angry black pride of a generation ago. Just joyful, wondrous pride — which extends also, although less intensely, to the many non-black delegates who have fought for civil rights.

Remember, a Democratic National Convention does not represent a racial cross-slice of America; it is always disproportionately black. And this year, with Obama, it is even more so than usual.

This is a very large gathering of thousands of black people at a signal historical moment of racial achievement, and yet the expression of that is thus far surprisingly muted. They have not dared to rejoice in what they are participating in — because they know that they are not supposed to make him "the black candidate." They know that the selling point, rightly, is that the Obamas are not a black couple but an American couple. One black delegate, after speaking emotionally about her thoughts watching Michelle Obama Monday night, conceded that she had refrained from letting any of that show in the convention hall — that, as she put it, she was a lot quieter than she would have been watching it at home with family and friends.

(On the way out of the convention center Monday night, almost every black hand was clutching at least one "Michelle" sign — white letters running vertically down a slim blue background on both sides of a stick, with a small American flag attached on top — for posterity, but nobody was waving them, or chanting or cheering.)

I have had similar conversations now with many black delegates — not to mention black and white individuals who came to Denver without credentials, without tickets, just to be here, hoping maybe to find a way to be part of it.

As of this writing — midday Tuesday — there is little indication of how Obama and his strategists intend to release that extraordinary pride and joy, if at all. Perhaps it needs to be restrained. Perhaps it needs to be let out carefully, cautiously, over the week. Perhaps it will simply burst out on Thursday of its own accord.

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