Julian Castro's Great Expectations

Before San Antonio Mayor Julian Castro walked onstage at the Democratic National Convention, the crowd was already pumped. They'd laughed and cheered as Massachusetts Governor Deval Patrick and former Ohio Governor Ted Strickland lambasted Mitt Romney—the former with righteous indignation, the latter with humor at full volume. After Castro exited, Michelle Obama, now unquestionably the most popular woman on planet Earth, took the stage with a speech that left both crowd and pundits—left and right—spellbound. Consequently, despite weeks of attention on the young Latino mayor, Castro's perfectly serviceable keynote speech isn't likely to be the one that everybody remembers. But that hardly means he failed. In fact, "perfectly serviceable" may have been the desired result.

In their first day, the Democrats did a masterful job of both managing expectations and drawing specific contrasts with the GOP's convention last week. Castro shared the evening spotlight with Obama, much as New Jersey Governor Chris Christie did with Ann Romney the first night of last week's convention (after the first-first night was canceled for weather). In the build-up to Tampa, there was more speculation about the would-be first lady's speech; after all, she's new to the spotlight and needed to give the country a personal view of her husband. Instead, the media focused on the bizarre contrast between her speech and Christie's follow-up act. Her speech began with the importance of love; his argued that politicians should care about respect and not love. Christie's speech drew attention away from Ann Romney's likability and, particularly because he made no mention of her husband until well into his talk, drew attention mostly to his own political aspirations.

By contrast, the Democrats hyped Castro weeks before the convention. (It's not the first time he's garnered media attention: The New York Times Magazine did a lengthy profile on the mayor and his twin brother, a state rep and congressional candidate.) The build-up for the national newcomer took the advance spotlight off of Michelle Obama's speech—after all, it seemed, we'd heard her pitch before.

Yet Castro wound up as a warm-up act for the first lady, who delivered a brilliantly crafted narrative that never mentioned her husband's political opponent by name but drew sharp contrasts to his story with almost every line. Emotionally charged without getting saccharine, the FLOTUS speech left just about everyone (even David Brooks) shocked by the power of its punch. It turned out that Castro was a decoy.

Which isn't to say his speech was poorly done. The Harvard- and Stanford-educated pol began with his own personal story, about the work his mother and grandmother, a Mexican immigrant, did to pave the way for his and his brother's success, and his grandmother's effort to teach herself to read in both English and Spanish. Instead of delivering a seemingly self-aggrandizing speech, as Christie did, Castro spent little time on his own policy goals and accomplishments, portraying himself as a typical person affected by national policies, and pushed for policies that "invest" in the future and basic infrastructure.

But what began as a personal tale soon turned into a decisive attack on Romney. Castro told the audience of a recent Romney appearance in which the candidate advised students to start a business and if they didn't have the funds, urged them to "borrow money if you have to from your parents." Getting at what will likely be a central theme of the Democratic effort, Castro was concise in his assessment: "I don't think Governor Romney meant any harm. I think he's a good guy. He just has no idea how good he's had it." Before long, he had the audience in a call-and-response against the GOP candidate.

Castro helped pave the way for the first lady's speech, reminding the audience of Romney's rhetoric so that Obama never had to mention the Republican opposition by name. Instead, she could spend the entire speech telling her family's story, and the president's—emphasizing communal success but never mentioning a rival campaign hyper-focused on the individual. In doing so, she stole the show.

Nevertheless, while Castro's speech bore little resemblance to Barack Obama's eloquent coming-out party in 2004, it will likely be remembered for the millions whose personal stories carry important parallels. He gave shout-outs to Obama's policy of deferred action on immigration and his support for "DREAM-ers," undocumented students who came to the country as young children and are pushing for the right to go to college here.

Commentators repeatedly mentioned Castro's appeal to "minorities," particularly Latinos—failing to recognize how rapidly demographics are shifting. In Democratic stronghold California, 38 percent of the population is Latino, compared with 40 percent who are white. In Castro's Texas, the population is 38 percent Latino. And in battleground Florida, those of Latino origin make up 23 percent of the population. Castro's place in the program was an important reflection of the electorate. In a knee-jerk reaction, many pundits compared his address to Florida Senator Marco Rubio's high-powered speech last week just before Romney's. But few mentioned that Rubio's was before a largely white audience. Castro's presence, by contrast, highlighted the diversity of the Democratic convention.

Most important, Castro didn't screw up. And he delivered some notably good lines. "The American dream is not a sprint, or even a marathon," Castro said, "but a relay." It was a powerful, memorable affirmation of American progressivism that cuts across parties and ideologies. Shortly thereafter, he spoke of his own daughter's entry into preschool, and cameras soon focused on the little girl, up in the balcony, adorably swishing her hair back and forth. Within the hour, Buzzfeed had made a GIF of the child.

If that's not a sign of success, what is?

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