Party Animals

(AP Photo/Jae C. Hong)

Delegates wave the signs during the Democratic National Convention in Charlotte, North Carolina.

“I’m not a member of any organized political party,” Will Rogers famously declared,  “I’m a Democrat.”

Rogers would not recognize the 2012 Democrats.

I’ve been attending conventions since 1964, when as a student I smuggled floor passes to the Mississippi Freedom Democratic Party insurgents in Atlantic City. And I’ve never seen anything as well choreographed and unified as night one of the 2012 convention.

In the old days, we might have said that any such display of party unity represents party bosses suppressing dissenters. But I don’t buy that. With an incumbent threatened by a lunatic-fringe Republican Party, I’m all for as much party unity as the Democrats can muster.

Besides, yesterday’s radical protesters are inside the tent and on the dais—and their message has become the party’s.

Three things were impressive—even startling—about Tuesday night’s prime-time speakers.

First, the party, in defiance of the old Democratic Leadership Council dogmas about avoiding “identity politics,” spotlighted feminism, gay rights, abortion rights, and the aspirations of Hispanics and African Americans. Several speakers, in almost identical words, spoke of GIs no longer having to choose between the person they love and the country they love.

Speakers did not waltz around the party’s strong support for abortion rights. And one speaker after another spoke of pay equity and other frankly feminist causes. Lilly Ledbetter, she of the Fair Pay Act bearing her name, nearly stole the show from Michelle Obama. (God bless white radicals speaking in the tones of the Deep South.)

Why did the Obama campaign decide to go left on social issues? This was obviously a considered decision, not the random result of who happened to be speaking.

One reason is that same-sex marriage is now mainstream—more of a wedge issue for libertarian Republicans than for Democrats. Another is that working women are the great bloc of swing voters, and they live pocketbook issues. That’s why Michelle Obama’s speech gave such emphasis to the stresses on working moms.

Another of the many speakers who hit a home run was keynoter Julian Castro, who epitomizes the aspirations of America’s fastest-growing bloc of voters. Based on their religious and social conservatism, Republicans should have a shot at Hispanics, but they are blowing that chance because of their dubious economic policies and viciously divisive stance on immigration. Who can resist the logic of the DREAM Act?

Unlike the Republicans, the Democrats did not have to stage a rainbow. It’s who they are.

The second impressive thing about Tuesday night was the exquisite balance between a diverse array of speakers and the consistency of the message. The speeches were carefully reviewed by the convention political team, but the managers of the affair had the wit to let Tammy Duckworth sound like Tammy Duckworth and Deval Patrick sound like Deval Patrick. (One of the few surprising lines that sounded almost like a critique of the Obama administration was Patrick’s cry that “it’s time for the Democratic Party to grow a backbone.”)

There were no self-referential goofballs like Chris Christie upstaging the nominee, and no loony freelancing a la Clint Eastwood. The whole thing ran like a Swiss watch. While media attention mostly focused on Michelle Obama’s terrific speech, what impressed me was the strength of the rest of the front bench.

The first lady’s speech was intended not just to appeal to women but to remind viewers and voters just how utterly American is her story and her husband’s. Anyone watching that speech and still believing that the Obamas are Muslim socialists bent on weakening America has to be a certified wing nut. (But, alas, certified nuts seem to be about 47 percent of the electorate.)

The third impressive thing about opening night was that Democrats were, finally, willing to be partisan. One speaker after another reminded the audience why the Republican program is bad for regular people, weaving together a consistent and utterly mainstream story.

I would like it if that story were even more critical of the banks that got us into this fix; but this is a bit awkward when the candidate is raising large sums on Wall Street. So Democrats are left with populist-sounding one-liners at election time and centrist policies that leave a toxic financial model intact the rest of the year. Even so, the Republicans are so much more vulnerable on these issues that the Democrats have the high ground. Thank God for Mitt Romney’s offshore bank accounts.

My question is whether the Democratic Party’s new, robust partisanship is like a comet that appears once every four years during election campaigns only to be eclipsed the rest of the time. Or will President Obama, in a second term that looks increasingly likely, begin to do more battle day in and day out, forcing Republicans to take difficult votes and using his bully pulpit to move public opinion? Or, as Deval Patrick memorably put it, will Democrats grow a backbone?

The stage is set for an even stronger Wednesday and Thursday, and an energized party base—one that may not be quite as giddy as the 2008 base but more than sufficiently fired up and ready to go.

Republicans are supposed to be the party of corporate efficiency and Madison Avenue slickness. Yet the Republican National Convention was a mess. With the GOP’s ill-concealed schisms, its off-message speakers, flat-out lies, and the underwhelming performance of its nominee, you might say it was easy for the Democrats to look good. But that understates what Tuesday night achieved.

After decades and decades of being internally divided, the Democrats are stunningly unified and almost shockingly professional, yet without sacrificing genuine passion. Though an incumbent’s convention with no real business to transact can be criticized as just another stage show, there are good shows and bad ones. This one is off to a great start.

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