If the first night at the Democrats’ Charlotte convention is any indication, their message boils to: There’s still Hope, and the president hasn’t Changed.
That, plus an unhealthy side dish of the culture wars.
Democrats did their best Tuesday night to relive the glory days of 2008 and convince you happy days are just around the corner. Massachusetts Gov. Deval Patrick gave an impassioned effort at portraying the past 3.5 years as a success. His delivery was quite good — probably the best of the night from someone who presumably aspires to a career in national-level politics — but his material was nothing you haven’t already heard:
This is the president who delivered the security of affordable health care to every single American after 90 years of trying. This is the president who brought Osama bin Laden to justice, who ended the war in Iraq and is ending the war in Afghanistan. This is the president who ended “don’t ask, don’t tell” so that love of country, not love of another, determines fitness for military service. Who made equal pay for equal work the law of the land. This is the president who saved the American auto industry from extinction, the American financial industry from self-destruction, and the American economy from depression. Who added over 4.5 million private sector jobs in the last two-plus years, more jobs than George W. Bush added in eight.
Set aside for now the figure about 4.5 million private sector jobs, selectively chosen to look as good as possible for Obama. Can this list really be described, as Patrick described it, as “long, impressive and barely told”? I won’t even get into a further parsing of the particular successes Patrick lists. Anyone who votes in this election is surely aware of the items on Patrick’s list — and yet voters routinely give Obama a mediocre approval rating and say the country is headed sharply in the wrong direction.
This was not a pitch that appeared geared toward the undecided voters who will decide this election in about a dozen swing states. It was a pitch designed to fire up the base, probably in the hopes that only the base was watching the first of three straight nights (for the second straight week) of political speeches.
Certainly, the repeated paeans to abortion rights and gay marriage were made with the base, and only the base, in mind. All last week, the people in Tampa with whom I spoke were struck by the scarcity on the RNC stage of such words and phrases as “abortion” and “pro-life,” “illegal immigration” and “gay marriage.” Any references that were made came only obliquely. As my colleague Jim Galloway noted, the GOP’s pitch was one aimed at independent voters. The contrast with the Democratic messaging Tuesday night was stark.
Julian Castro, the young Latino mayor of San Antonio billed as the next Obama, did a fair job of delivering a rather trite speech, as keynote addresses go. If you watched the GOP convention last Thursday night, you saw Marco Rubio deliver the best parts of Castro’s speech first, and better: For example, Rubio talked about his father’s working “behind the bar in the back of the room” so that he could stand “behind this podium in the front of the room”; Castro said his mother “held a mop” so that he could “hold this microphone.” If we’re going to play the “who has the most promising [enter race/ethnicity/gender here] politician,” I think the GOP will be quite pleased to put Rubio, Senate candidate Ted Cruz of Texas and, especially, New Mexico Gov. Susana Martinez up against Castro.
Michelle Obama gave what I thought was the best speech of the night. It was warm and passionate, and effective in the way she contrasted her ambivalence in 2008 with the idea of her husband being president (for once, Republicans were nodding along with her!) with her firm belief now that he has to be the man in the White House. Like Castro, she hit on some themes that her Republican counterpart, Ann Romney, did last week: Whereas Mrs. Romney talked about eating tuna salad on a fold-down ironing table as a newlywed, Mrs. Obama recalled the just-married Obamas being “so young, so in love, so in debt.” (Maybe this explains why the president is so unmoved by our national debt today?) If there is a common theme between the two conventions so far, it is the apparent need for everyone involved to highlight the humility of his or her beginnings.
Ultimately, however, Mrs. Obama’s message was framed around a question she receives from well-wishers across the country: Has the presidency changed her husband? She made a strong case that it has not, that he is the same man she fell in love with “all those years ago” — and, more to the point, that he’s the same man the American electorate fell in love with four years ago. This is a nice little conceit that dodges the real question posed by this election: Has the country changed, for the better, during his presidency?
That is the argument still to be made persuasively tonight and tomorrow night.
– By Kyle Wingfield