WASHINGTON, Aug. 26 (UPI) -- The first day of the Democratic National Convention in Denver went exactly the way Barack Obama wanted it to -- and it was a catastrophe for him and his party.
The convention began with the display of unity that Sen. Obama, D-Ill., wanted -- but what he showed the American people was a Democratic Party united around the left-leaning liberal principles that have been an anchor around its neck for 40 years.
The speech of the dying Sen. Ted Kennedy, D-Mass., didn't leave a dry eye in the house. Kennedy and his family have rallied enthusiastically around Obama, who adores the senator's assassinated brothers, especially President John F. Kennedy, as his greatest political heroes.
Giving Ted Kennedy such a keynote and honored position was simultaneously a generous gesture and political payback for Obama. Even afflicted with a brain tumor, Kennedy turned out another of the crowd-pleasing "here I stand" perorations of liberal and reform principles for which he has been so famous for so long.
But the cold fact remains that outside his native Massachusetts, Kennedy has been an albatross around his party's neck for most of his adult life. Obama out in the Rocky Mountains fell into the same trap that Kennedy's fellow Massachusetts liberal Sen. John Kerry did at the 2004 Democratic convention in Boston: By highlighting Kennedy, both men threw away all their claims to appeal to working-class Heartland America as moderate centrists Presidents Jimmy Carter and Bill Clinton -- the only national winners the Democrats have produced in the past 44 years -- managed to do.
Obama's indulgence to Kennedy, coming right after his pick of three-decade liberal Sen. Joseph Biden, D-Del., as his running mate, sends the message unambiguously across America that Obama is not the start of something new in the Democratic Party: He is the tail end of something very unsuccessful and very old.
The speech by Obama's wife, Michelle, when judged on its own merits, was also very impressive in both her content and delivery. In addition to the warm and fuzzy family references and touching necessary bases with the reference to Sen. Hillary Clinton, D.-N.Y., Obama's defeated rival, she went after the white working-class voters for whom Obama has been a tough sell. And she dealt well with the race issue without ever mentioning it.
Michelle Obama's message was clear: She wanted to tell the American people, "Barack and I may be high-powered lawyers, but look where we came from: hard-working blue-collar families who believed in personal responsibility. In other words, we know what it is like to struggle to make ends meet but to take pride in your family and your work. We are just like you."
Unfortunately, it won't work.
For Mrs. Obama already has been vividly defined, not by the Republican Attack Machine but by her own unfortunate utterances and obvious lifestyle, as in no way "one of us" in the mainstream popular perception. Putting her center stage on the first day of the convention was a catastrophic political error: It sent the message to conservatives and centrists that Michelle Obama in the White House would be another Hillary Clinton -- a wife who either will pull her husband's strings or will be powerful and determined enough to pursue a radical and independent political agenda of her own.
Throughout U.S. political history, first ladies -- with the one striking exception of the legendary Eleanor Roosevelt -- have been most effective for their husbands when appearing to be non-political even when they were, in fact, highly engaged.
Current first lady Laura Bush and Democrats Jackie Kennedy and Lady Bird Johnson were strikeout successes in this role. The courageous and admirable Betty Ford, Republican, and Rosalynn Carter, Democrat, by contrast, proved significant political embarrassments to their husbands precisely because they showed their intelligence and independence of mind during their years in the White House. And they were skilled and restrained low-profile practitioners compared with Mrs. Obama.
It therefore would have been much better for Obama if he had prevented both the dying Ted Kennedy and his own wife from speaking at all at the convention: Highlighting them on the first day made things even worse. Preventing a dying man and his own wife from speaking obviously would have appeared heartless and ruthless, but those moves were vital to present Obama as a credible -- and decisive -- president to Heartland America.
Instead, by his own actions, Obama has now painted himself into a corner as the most radically left-wing Democratic presidential nominee since the catastrophic Sen. George McGovern in 1972. And he still has to endure two nights of showcased Clintons, both of whom will overshadow him.
It should have been impossible for Obama to lose this election: He appears determined to make it inevitable.