Make no mistake: One of the major themes at the Democratic National Convention (DNC) was invented by one of its keynote speakers. A little more than a year ago, Elizabeth Warren* told a supporter in a living room in Andover, Massachusetts, that “there is nobody in this country who got rich on his own. Nobody.” What she meant was that American business thrived because it took root in a stable democracy that looked after the common good and invested in roads and education. She expanded that: Anyone who’s benefited has an intergenerational responsibility to pay the fruits of that investment forward.
CHARLOTTE, NORTH CAROLINA—Outside of the convention center, and around downtown Charlotte, are a handful of anti-abortion activists. It’s hard to miss them. They carry large signs plastered with graphic photos of dismembered fetuses and preach their message with loudspeakers:
“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.
Did you watch it last night? It was an amazing night of TV, of Twitter (that instant snark convo), and of politics. My twitter feed was full of journos saying to each other: Wow, there’s a lot of energy here! Don’t you feel more buzz than in Tampa? I thought this was supposed to be the dispirited convention, but these folks are excited. You could see that in every breakaway shot of the convention floor: Folks were cheering, nodding, yelling back in witness. Over and over again, the Dems boasted proudly about standing up for health care, equal pay, LGBT rights (including the freedom to marry), and yes, reproductive rights, without apology.
CHARLOTTE, NORTH CAROLINA—At the same time that Democrats are celebrating the achievements of the last three-and-a-half years and preparing to renominate the president, Republicans are refocusing on the message of their convention—"Obama isn’t working." In particular, the GOP has resurrected the question of 1980 and 1992, which happen to be the two most recent times an incumbent president has lost reelection: “Are you better off than you were four years ago?”
CHARLOTTE, NORTH CAROLINA—Delegates were enthusiastic for every prime-time speaker at the Democratic National Convention last night. San Antonio mayor Julian Castro received big applause for his riff on opportunity—“My mother fought for civil rights, so that instead of a mop, I could hold this microphone”—and former Ohio Governor Ted Strickland won cheers for his harsh attacks on Mitt Romney’s “economic patriotism.”
But for all of its excitement, the crowd saved its adulation for Michelle Obama’s closing message to tonight’s session of the convention. She was a superstar—delegations passed out “Michelle Obama” signs, attendees stood and clapped at every opportunity, and on several occasions, she was drowned out by the roar of the crowd.
The message of the first night of the Democratic Convention was “We built it together.” Speaker after speaker took aim at the Republican Party’s Randian, libertarian vision, at the ideology that Britain’s Margaret Thatcher succinctly expressed when she said, “There is no such thing as society.”
There is, too, replied the Democrats. There is temporal society—the intergenerational links, the investment in education that pays off not in your own success but, as San Antonio Mayor Julian Castro pointed out, in your children’s. There is the society of laws, where Democrats (in general) and Barack Obama (in particular) have fought for equality in matters of sexual orientation. There is the economic society—now more unequal than it’s been in 80 years—where Obama, in his wife’s words, ensured that paying your medical bill won’t mean you “go broke.”
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.
Members of the news media arrive at RNC in Tampa, prepare to talk about nothing. (Flickr/NewsHour)
I have a lot of sympathy for campaign reporters. Their time on the trail can be exhausting, a weird combination of high stress and utter boredom. Every day they have to follow their candidate around to another event that was just like the last one, where he'll say exactly the same things, and they have to figure out how to write a story that isn't precisely the same as what they wrote yesterday. And now that their news organizations want them to produce content for a wide array of platforms, it gets even harder.
That being said, reporters can sometimes get seriously whiny. To wit, this story in Politico about how the members of the traveling press corps all think campaign 2012 is a total bummer:
It looks like another Iowa Supreme Court justice may lose his job this year. Conservatives are once again railing against one of the judges who legalized same-sex marriage in Iowa. Bob Vander Plaats, a prominent social conservative on the local scene who led an anti-retention campaign against three of the state's supreme court justices in 2010, announced last month that he was spearheading an effort to make sure David Wiggins doesn't succeed at the polls this November.
My first Democratic National Convention came when I was ten. My parents took me along to the new Los Angeles Sports Arena for the second night of the 1960 gathering that nominated Jack Kennedy. The tickets came courtesy of my father’s employers, who ran a mega-tract-home construction company. They may well have been to the right of the Democratic Party; my parents were still stubbornly to its left —members of the all-but-extinct Socialist Party—but no matter. A national political convention didn’t come around every week, and besides, my parents increasingly considered themselves close to the liberal reformers who dominated California’s Democratic Party.
As chance would have it, the second night of that Democratic Convention provided the last gasp of liberalism’s romance with Adlai Stevenson, the party’s nominee in the past two elections, which he lost both times to Dwight Eisenhower. More through his eloquence and his pose of somehow being above politics than through any of his policies (he had disgracefully ducked supporting the fledgling civil-rights movement), Stevenson had become the darling of anti-big-city, machine liberal professionals during the 1950s. He still had strong support in those circles, among California reform Democrats in particular. Kennedy, who was closing in on the number of delegates needed to secure the nomination, had dispatched the genuine liberal in the field, Hubert Humphrey, in a series of primaries, and many liberals were still resistant to his charms. Big-city bosses like Chicago’s Richard Daley still held the balance of power at the convention, since only a relative handful of states held primaries that bound delegates to vote for the candidate their state’s voters preferred.
In early October 2011, Shannon Sherman, a pregnant nurse who was two weeks from her due date, met Elizabeth Warren, though she didn’t know it at the time. All Sherman knew was that a friendly woman said hello to her in the ladies’ room at the Massachusetts Nurses Association’s annual conference, asked how far along she was, and shared a chuckle about the difficulties and indignities of the ninth month of pregnancy. Sherman had heard of Warren; the previous summer, the nurses’ union had been among the first to endorse the Democrat in the 2012 Senate race, while she was still in Washington overseeing the Consumer Financial Protection Bureau. Like many progressive groups, the union was eager to encourage Warren to jump into the race for the Senate seat Ted Kennedy had held for 47 years until his death in 2009. Scott Brown, a Republican, had won a special election in January 2010, and Democrats were still aghast over it.
This kid should clearly have been at home watching TV. (Flickr/NewsHour)
When Mitt Romney gave his convention speech on Thursday, as far as we can tell the collective response from the everyone in the country was, "Meh." I haven't seen any Democrats who said it was a disaster, but I also haven't seen any Republicans who said it was fantastic. And lo and behold, Gallup reports that 40 percent of respondents in their poll said Romney's speech made them more likely to vote for him, while 38 percent said it made them less likely to vote for him. That net positive of +2 makes Romney's the least effective speech since Gallup started asking this question in 1984. That's probably partly because the speech was nothing special, and partly because people are largely going to react along partisan lines no matter what it actually contained.
But one thing that's weird about this is that 78 percent of people expressed an opinion about Romney's speech. And in a separate question, a nearly identical 76 percent said they had watched at least some of the Republican convention. If that were actually true, it would have been the highest-rated convention in history. But of course, it isn't.
Kevin Drum noticed something that I also found striking about the Republican convention, that it seemed like every speaker had to relate their hard-luck tale of a rise from poverty. And if they didn't actually have their own such story, then they told their parents' story, or their grandparents' story. Kevin laments that, like many of us, he has to go back a couple of generations in his family to find the inspiring tale of bootstrap-pulling. You'll also notice that most of these stories end with the teller exulting that "only in America" could someone like them, who had a parent or grandparent who was poor, today be standing in front of a crowd of people wearing elephant hats. I've complained before about the ridiculousness of "only in America," but oh boy was it repeated often over the last three days.
I often find it difficult to give an objective assessment of something like Mitt Romney's speech last night. For those of us who are immersed in politics and have strong opinions, setting aside one's prior judgments and beliefs is all but impossible, particularly when you're faced with a speech like this one that wasn't obviously great or obviously terrible. Having acknowledged my biases, my conclusion is that this speech isn't going to change too many minds.
Like many people, I find Mitt Romney to be the most artificial of politicians. There are many things that go into that, some of which are more serious than others. The fact that he's awkward and stiff is completely forgivable; there have been awkward and stiff Democratic candidates (Kerry, Gore) whom I thought would make perfectly good presidents. As Jon Chait said, "Romney seems to lack a talent for faking sincerity," which is no crime in and of itself. On the other hand, the fact that he seems utterly devoid of principles (other than a belief that the privileges of the wealthy should be reinforced) and has shifted his positions so many times on so many issues to suit whatever group he is trying to appeal to at a given moment is not so forgivable. So when Romney sets out to "humanize" himself, it's hard to forget all that and judge whether his act is getting any better.