Tearing Down the Walls

Ted Kennedy and Howard Dean may have fizzled, and Teresa Heinz Kerry cooed
cerebrally, but the star of Tuesday night and the Democratic future was
clearly Barack Obama.

Listening to the speech from the press risers, I was reminded of the
keynote address at the 1984 Democratic convention. Like Obama today, Mario
Cuomo was the rising star of the moment; and also like Obama, Cuomo was (and
most certainly viewed himself as) a breakthrough candidate for an ethnic group
-- in his case, obviously, Italian-Americans. No multi-culti stuff for Mario
and Barack, however; each depicted their moment as an expansion of a diverse
but indivisible American democracy.

Indeed, indivisibility was a key theme of the two keynotes, 20 years
apart. Cuomo, speaking near the end of Ronald Reagan's first term, reminded
the nation of its obligation to the poor -- chiefly the inner-city poor, who
were the most glaring casualties of Reaganomics. Obama, speaking near the end
of Bush's -- let us hope, only -- term, reminded the nation of its obligations
not just to the inner-city poor but also the white working class downsized and
downscaled in this era of capital flight. After all, what really makes Obama a
star is not his ability to wow Democratic delegates but the fact that he's
won the support of white working-class voters in suburbs that were
ferociously racist for decades, and in some cases still are. He won their
votes in the March Senate primary and is cleaning up in the polls with those
voters now; that they view the skinny lawyer with a Kenyan father as
their tribune is something of a political miracle in a nation that's been
short of miracles for a long time.

Obama also afforded the delegates their liberal moment. Like the delegates
at all recent Democratic conventions, this year's delegates are a liberal
bunch; it's in their DNA. But as the party constantly positions itself not to
be caught defending, say, too many civil liberties on national television,
moments of pure, minority-rights liberalism at national conventions are few
and far between. Despite the best efforts of the gatekeepers, though, a few
such moments slip through.

One such moment came in Obama's speech, when he declared that the arrest
of an Arab-American family, without recourse to attorney, threatened his, and
everyone's, civil liberties. At that, the crowd stood and roared, giving their
loudest ovation until the very last paragraphs of his speech. For one brief
shining moment, Obama let liberals be liberals again -- and, better yet, did so in the
midst of a speech that mainstreamed, rather than marginalized, liberalism. For
that, and for much else, the delegates loved him.

Obama was followed to the podium by Ron Reagan, who delivered a strongly
written and politically cunning speech. The son clearly picked up some of the
father's rhetorical skills: His admonitions to the Republican right that
stands athwart of medical progress rang out as clearly as his father's “Mr.
Gorbachev, tear down this wall!”

So what do you think of an Obama-Reagan ticket in 2012?

Harold Meyerson is editor-at-large of The American Prospect.

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