The Democratic Party’s convention opened on Tuesday evening in Charlotte, North Carolina with a one-two punch. First there was a rousing attack on Mitt Romney’s idea of American progress by Julian Castro, the mayor of San Antonio, among others. Then came that warm, loving portrait of Barack Obama by his wife Michelle – the person who may just be the best politician in the US right now. J. BROOKS SPECTOR was up before dawn to watch the speeches and reflect on how they might impact the race for the Oval Office.
Following the Republican party convention in Tampa, Florida that formally nominated Mitt Romney and Paul Ryan as their candidates (with a party platform whose positions are often a sop to the Tea Party wing of their party) and which gave their candidates only a very modest bump upward in the polls, the Democrats came out guns blazing at theirs. In an effort to parry the Republicans’ rallying cry to voters to ask themselves, “after voting for Barack Obama in 2008, are you better off now than you were four years ago?” the incumbent president’s party put the spotlight on several of its best politician orators and their servings of red meat to the partisan crowd. These included former Ohio governor Ted Strickland, Massachusetts governor Deval Patrick, Newark mayor Cory Booker, a reach back from beyond the grave with a virtual Ted Kennedy, Maryland governor Martin O’Malley, and San Antonio mayor Julian Castro as keynote speaker.
Aside from Ted Kennedy’s video archival rip of Mitt Romney’s views on the “right to life” versus “women’s right to choose” from their race for Kennedy’s old senate seat (Mitt Romney’s policy views are multi-choice, Kennedy had retorted), Strickland (or his speech doctor) probably deserves the blue ribbon for the single best one-liner: “If Mitt Romney was Santa Claus, he would have fired the reindeer and outsourced the elves.”
Overall, though, Julian Castro’s keynote speech also lived up to its advance billing. His heartfelt tribute to the sacrifices his grandmother and mother had made for him so he and his twin brother (himself running for Congress in the election) could reach for their educational and political dreams, set up his key moment in which he could aver that the American dream is not just a sprint or a marathon. Rather it is a relay race in which one generation passes on its dreams, aspirations and better opportunities to the generation that follows. That of course came in tandem with Castro’s jibe that if Mitt Romney had but to ask dad for his university tuition, Castro could say (on behalf of millions of other Americans without Romney’s familial resources), “Say, now why didn’t I think of that!” Castro whipped up the crowd with gospel-style call and response – shouting out each Romney position Democrats disagree with, then getting the crowd to enter into the spirit of the thing with a vigorous “Mitt Romney said… No!”
The highlight of the evening, however, was Michelle Obama’s personal tribute to her husband as a warm, caring man – “a man we can trust” – who feels the personal impact of the nation’s travails and his hard policy choices. Moreover, her husband’s actions and feelings as president derive from the background and grounding in authentic, holistic values learned from grandparents – just as she had imbibed them from her own parents, their modest circumstances and their strict code of hard work, education and devotion to family. Michelle Obama recalled her early dates with the future president when he had met her driving a clapped-out, skedonk car complete with holes right through the door panels and whose coffee table in his flat had been rescued from a rubbish tip.
Even cynical commentators on TV networks found themselves gushing over her speech – regardless of their feelings for the candidate – saying she could certainly have a successful career in politics if she chose to do so. Her public standing represents an extraordinary evolution to national admiration for her work with children’s health and military families, light years from the strident image portrayed in that infamous 2008 New Yorker article that depicted her as an Angela Davis look-alike, giving a fist bump to a husband in full Taliban irregular regalia, right in the White House’s Oval Office.
Running through most of this first night’s speeches (and indeed from the Republican convention onward) is a debate over the meaning of the country’s less than inspiring economic statistics. Republicans argue the country has over 12 million unemployed and has lost some 5 million jobs during Obama’s watch. Democrats reply that coming off the economic and financial meltdown and near free-fall in the wake of the banking collapse, some 4.5 million new jobs have been created during the Obama administration – and besides, a million’s worth of the losses came from local/state/federal job losses as the economic crunch forced budget cuts in many jurisdictions.
Similarly Democrats now argue, if unemployment is now standing at around 8.3%, this is still lower than the figure of around 10% that prevailed at the height of the economic crisis that spun out of the financial freeze-up. However, the economic statistics coming out now make it very unlikely the president will be able to claim any kind of meaningful economic turnaround by election day.
In the best of circumstances, the Democrats will be able to focus discussion on these numbers to shape a message – and a resulting political impetus – to let him “finish the job”, and shift much of the blame to the Republican House of Representatives for obstructing the stimulus policies that might have made a difference.
Perhaps this will boil down to how two competing slogans will become the bedrock for the rest of the campaign – and the subtext for the presidential and vice presidential debates that come in October. On the one hand, Republicans argue to undecided voters that they should ask themselves if they are better off now than they were four years ago. As Wednesday’s Financial Times wrote, “Mr Obama has struggled to find a coherent economic message on the campaign trail, coming under renewed attack on Tuesday for his comment in a TV interview on Monday that he would give himself an ‘incomplete grade’ over the economy. ‘If President Obama can’t even give himself a passing grade, why would the American people give him another four years?’ said a spokeswoman for Mitt Romney, his Republican challenger.”
In response, Democrats answer (as vice president Joe Biden did the other day) that their bumper sticker must now read: “Osama bin Laden is dead but General Motors lives” – a twofer that attempts to speak to the Obama administration’s success in foreign policy and international security as well as a rescue of the economy and the auto industry from imminent collapse.
Wednesday and Thursday will bring more rhetorical moments as former president Bill Clinton does his star turn, the vice president accepts his re-nomination as the Democrats’ vice presidential candidate and the president then gives his own acceptance speech on Thursday to wrap up the proceedings. Then the pollsters and spin-doctors watch to see if the Democrats get a bounce in the polling from the euphoria of their convention. According to the latest polls, at the national level the two candidates are now in a statistical dead heat with just a small number of people telling pollsters they are undecided. Crucial to remember, of course, is that the election hinges on winning the electoral votes state by state, not the popular vote nationally. This will play out most pointedly with a diminishing number of still-uncommitted voters in Florida, Ohio, North Carolina, Virginia, New Hampshire, Wisconsin and Colorado, the states which probably hold the key to this election. DM
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Photo: U.S. first lady Michelle Obama addresses delegates during the first session of the Democratic National Convention in Charlotte, North Carolina, September 4, 2012. REUTERS/Jim Young
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