Democrats moved one step closer to a full roster of convention speakers Wednesday, tapping former Virginia Gov. Mark Warner to deliver the keynote address at the party gathering in Denver later this month.
In doing so, Democrats and the Obama campaign are sending a strong signal, not only about their intention to compete in Virginia but about Warner’s future and the kind of message the party wants to send to America.
Warner, who is currently running for Senate, released a statement calling the keynote a “chance to showcase some of the initiatives we launched here in Virginia,” mentioning his work on economic issues and touting his record of “working cooperatively with Republicans, Democrats, and independents.”
The popular former governor is slated to speak on the night of Tuesday, August 26, which the Democrats have billed with the theme: “Renewing America’s Promise.” Sen. Hillary Rodham Clinton, Sen. Barack Obama’s former rival for the Democratic nomination, will also speak that evening.
Republicans have not yet formally announced their keynote speaker, but speculation has centered on 37-year-old Louisiana Gov. Bobby Jindal, who has also drawn attention as a possible running mate for Sen. John McCain.
In the past, keynote speakers have tended to be the most compelling voices in the respective parties or have been drawn from the ranks of talented younger officeholders, giving parties the chance to highlight some of their rising stars. At the 2004 convention, Barack Obama’s keynote address transformed him from an obscure Senate candidate to a national sensation overnight.
Kenneth Baer, a longtime Democratic speechwriter and founder of the journal Democracy, said Warner could fill that bill at this year’s convention.
“People in-the-know know what a dynamic leader he is and what an accomplished governor he was,” Baer explained. “Most of the country doesn’t know exactly who he is and so I think this is an amazing opportunity for him to be introduced to a wider group of people.”
Obama is not the only politician to have used his keynote speech to seize a national profile. New York Gov. Mario Cuomo, who addressed the Democratic National Convention in 1984, gave such a ringing defense of liberalism that he was discussed as a presidential nominee until the end of his career in office.
Even keynote speeches less successful than Cuomo’s have a way of boosting a politician’s national prospects. Sen. Evan Bayh, who as the governor of Indiana delivered the Democratic keynote in 1996, received tepid reviews for his performance that year. But thanks in part to his elevated national profile, Bayh has been mentioned as a contender for national office in every presidential election since.
If Republicans turn to Jindal for their convention’s keynote address, he, like Warner, would allow his party to highlight the accomplishments of a highly regarded, but less well-known official.
“Bobby Jindal strikes me as ideal,” said Peter Robinson, a former speechwriter for George H.W. Bush and Ronald Reagan. “In his very person he suggests dynamism, an ability to look forward to the future.”
“For them, it’s kind of doing an Obama-type thing,” said Baer, who described Jindal as a politician who’s “young and interesting and doesn’t look like a typical Republican.”
Republicans have picked convention speakers by this calculus before, such as in 1988, when the party tapped the youthful, moderate New Jersey Gov. Thomas Kean to speak, or in 1996, when Sen. Bob Dole designated Susan Molinari, then a little-known 38-year-old New York congresswoman, as the party’s keynote speaker.
“The keynote is that time when you can really come in, in primetime, and put your best party face on,” Molinari said, “and, in general, present the personification of the party as it stands today.”
Republican keynoters, too, have gone on to major national roles. Tennessee Sen. Howard Baker, who gave the headline speech at the GOP’s 1976 convention, went on to lead his party in the Senate and serve as Reagan’s White House chief of staff. Sen. Phil Gramm of Texas, who keynoted the 1992 Republican convention, became one of the Senate’s highest-profile advocates for conservative economic policy and has been mentioned as recently as this year as a potential Republican Treasury secretary.
Both Baker and Gramm also launched unsuccessful presidential campaigns.
Whatever longer-term aspirations a keynote speaker may have, however, their immediate task is putting in a solid performance at the convention. It’s no small challenge, and experts differ on exactly how a keynote should fit into the larger program of a nominating convention.
Some, like Cuomo, see the speech as an opportunity to articulate a broad message for the party.
The purpose of the keynote, Cuomo said, is “to set the tone, to, in a way, capture the spirit and the essential elements of what is going to come out of the convention.”
In his 1984 speech, Cuomo made the case for a more compassionate government and accused the Reagan administration of being indifferent to Americans’ economic difficulties.
Molinari agreed that the keynote speaker could play an important role in defining the public’s perception of a political party.
“It is, in general, supposed to be painting the face of, the concerns of the party,” she said, “and what does it mean to you, the people who are watching at home.”
The former congresswoman added, though, that keynotes can also serve a tougher purpose: nailing the other party.
“I’m a street fighter from New York,” she said. “It’s one of the speeches that’s in prime time that the networks will cover. It’s an opportunity to draw a distinction between us and them.”
Hence lines like Molinari’s comment in 1996: “Americans know that Bill Clinton’s promises have the lifespan of a Big Mac on Air Force One.”
Or then-Texas Treasurer Ann Richards’ memorable jab in 1988, won she delighted Democratic partisans with her pointed takedown of George H.W. Bush: “Poor George. He can’t help it. He was born with a silver foot in his mouth.”
Richards’s quip promptly took a place in the political lexicon. Two years later, she was elected governor.
In 1992, then-Georgia Gov. Zell Miller spoke as one of three Democratic keynoters at the convention in New York and attacked President Bush as a president “who hears only the voices of caution and the status quo.”
“Let’s face facts,” Miller said in his speech’s most famous line: “George Bush just doesn’t get it.”
Robinson noted that keynote addresses can be useful opportunities to level criticism but also cautioned that it is possible to take negativity too far, citing Miller’s 2004 address at the Republican convention—by then he had become a Democratic Party heretic--as an example of a speech that was so negative that it became ineffective.
“You can’t be direct, blunt in your attack,” Robinson said, “but you want to set things up for your candidate by drawing sharp distinctions.”
Miller had attacked his own party and its nominee, Massachusetts Sen. John F. Kerry, as insufficiently supportive of the military and suggested Democrats were not committed to victory in Iraq. In a television appearance after his speech, Miller seemed to challenge MSNBC host Chris Matthews to a duel.
“I wouldn’t disagree with a thing he said,” Robinson explained, but added that the speech was “over the top.”
“What was the story for the next few days?” he said. “It was Zell Miller.”
This year, it seems unlikely that the Democratic keynote speech will feature any similarly caustic moments.
Baer, who has worked with Warner in the past, said his selection suggested Democrats were more focused on reinforcing the positive argument of their nominee.
“I think they’ve gone the route of highlighting unity and change,” Baer said. “I think he underscores the fundamental Obama message.”
Indeed, the release announcing Warner as the keynote speaker declared: “Governor Warner’s successful leadership style echoes the Convention’s theme of Americans coming together for change.”
Cuomo argued that his party would do well to take a more positive tone in its rhetoric.
“We have to come out of this convention convincing people that our aspirations are worthwhile and achievable,” Cuomo said. “That’s more important than saying, ‘The other guy is not as good as I am.’”