The Democratic National Convention had its Clint Eastwood.
His name: Antonio Villaraigosa.
Like Eastwood arguing onstage with an empty chair at the GOP convention, Villaraigosa provided an unscripted moment that led to mockery and political trouble for his party.
Specifically, the Democratic convention chairman messed up a political no-brainer: rewording the party platform to reinsert a reference to God and another concerning Jerusalem as Israel’s capital.
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The language got in the platform.
But it took three chaotic voice votes, all called by a flat-footed Villaraigosa — the mayor of Los Angeles — who was caught grinning in confusion after a surprising number of Democratic delegates repeatedly shouted “No!” on the convention floor as TV cameras rolled.
Suddenly, a pro-forma vote that normally garners relatively little negative attention turned into drama. Lots of drama. It was satirized roundly on the liberal-leaning The Daily Show with Jon Stewart.
A needless and unforced error, it was a gift to Republicans. Just as Eastwood’s performance allowed Democrats to try to cast the GOP as a party of angry old white guys, the Jerusalem issue allowed Republicans to try to cast the Democrats as too hostile to Israel.
Like his fellow Californian Eastwood, Villaraigosa refused to acknowledge any error. “Not one person objected. It’s more a media concern than a delegate concern. I can tell you this — the president of the United States said, ‘Wow.’ The president said, ‘You showed why you were speaker of the California Assembly,’” Villaraigosa later told The Los Angeles Times. “The president, the vice president, Mrs. Obama, all of them acknowledged the decisive way I handled that.”
Did the president say “Wow!” or “Wow?”
The way Villaraigosa managed the situation gives an indication of why California is so messed up. And if Obama thought he did a great job, it speaks volumes about Illinois and the Democratic Party in general — especially when it comes to handling Jewish voters.
At the least, the incident underscores the needless political risk the party took in omitting Jerusalem as the capital of Israel.
While it’s not the most important issue to Jewish voters, it’s certainly emotional. Jewish voters are a core of support for the Democratic Party, particularly in Florida, the largest swing state with the most-influential Jewish community.
The omission on its face was an embarrassment to the face of Jewish voters for the Democratic Party: U.S. Rep. Debbie Wasserman Schultz, the Broward congresswoman and chairwoman of the Democratic National Committee. She was already reeling for misrepresenting statements from Israel’s ambassador about Republican Middle East policy.
Wasserman Schultz said she was unaware that the Jerusalem language wasn’t in the platform. And when a controversy exploded over it, she was left explaining for Villaraigosa, who was nowhere to be found.
“Essentially, with Jerusalem, it was a technical omission and nothing more than that," Wasserman Schultz said Thursday morning on CNN as she tried to dismiss the controversy.
Her former fellow congressional colleague, Robert Wexler, also downplayed the issue.
So a Florida politician was left playing cleanup for a Californian — sort of like Florida Sen. Marco Rubio who had to immediately follow Eastwood’s bizarre performance art of a rant at the invisible Obama sitting in an empty chair.
It shouldn’t have gotten to this point. Wasserman Schultz and Wexler should have been well-informed before, but they apparently weren’t. As a major city mayor and former legislative leader, Villaraigosa should have known that he should have told them. Someone from the Democratic Party should have.
This is not the type of vote for the floor on the last day of the convention. It should have been handled days before.
A new vote was then scheduled hours after Wexler and Wasserman Schultz were claiming all was well. At that point, the convention chairman or someone from the party should have tried to line up the votes. They didn’t.
Villaraigosa should have known that Arab-American delegates, many from Michigan, opposed the changes. The God language didn’t bother them. But the Jerusalem issue did because of the state of Palestinian-Israel tensions.
The two issues were rolled into one voice vote, which would take a two-thirds supermajority to pass.
It didn’t. In the somewhat sparsely attended hall that afternoon, Arab-Americans, critics of Israel, platform-purists and perhaps an atheist or two shouted “No!” louder than the supporters shouted “Yes!”
“In the opinion of the — let me do that again,” he stumbled.
As a mayor and former chief assemblyman, he should have known how to take a voice vote over a fait accompli item. If the voice-vote goes against his wishes, he generally lies and says the item passed. There are ways to challenge a chair. It happens all the time in a lawmaking body. But this is a convention party platform, which is essentially a ceremonial document.
But Villaraigosa didn’t do that. He called a second vote.
Again, the nays had it.
“I — um — I guess,” he stammered again, “I’ll do that one more time.”
At this point, it’s catnip for the media and Republicans.
Vote number three was like the first two.
“In the opinion of the chair, two thirds have voted in the affirmative,” he lied (finally), “and the platform has been amended.”
Unlike Eastwood’s rant, this was actually a scripted event. The teleprompter showed that Democrats expected the chairman to say the measure passed on the first try. That makes Villaraigosa both a bad actor and parliamentarian.
The drama, while embarrassing, didn’t prove to be too damaging. Polls indicate that Eastwood’s speech vied for attention with Republican nominee Mitt Romney’s, and Obama’s convention appears to have given him a more-measurable boost in the polls to pull ahead of Romney.
But in a highly scripted event like a convention, unscripted moments like this tear down the Potemkin-village walls to give the media and opposition a glimpse of what’s going on behind the scenes.
And it became clear that, while Republicans got stuck with an empty chair on stage for their convention, the Democrats wound up with an empty suit.