Web Only// Features » September 5, 2012
Democrats Go for The Jugular
On the first night of the DNC, the speakers hit the GOP’s perceived strength: family
The Democrats are going to sorely miss Barack Obama when he’s gone.
Obama wasn’t anywhere to be found at the Democratic National Convention’s kickoff last night, but his fingerprints were all over it. It was high-energy. It was focused. And it went right for the jugular. Obama may not know how to sell his policies, once elected, but he sure knows how to campaign. Karl Rove must have looked on aghast, but with a grudging respect, as the event unfolded.
It was positively Rovian, after all, how the Democrats simultaneously shored up the base while making a pitch to the heartland, attacking the GOP’s perceived strengths.
For the base, there were nods to policy—gay marriage and the repeal of “Don’t Ask Don’t Tell” seemed to pop up in every speech—but the diversity of the speakers did most of the work. Deval Patrick, the African-American governor of Massachusetts, got a primetime spot. So did Obama’s Jewish former chief of staff (and current Chicago mayor), Rahm Emanuel, and Kal Penn, the young-ish actor of Indian descent who starred in the Harold and Kumar comedies. Julian Castro, the 37-year-old Hispanic mayor of San Antonio, delivered the keynote.
There was nothing subtle, though, about how the Democrats’ made their pitch to the heartland. There was nothing remotely subtle, in particular, about Ted Strickland, the former governor of Ohio, who highlighted the role of the auto bailout in bolstering his state’s economy. He ticked off the number of jobs saved and noted recent announcements by General Motors that it would add new production lines in Ohio.
“Barack Obama stood by us and now, by God, we will stand by him,” Strickland thundered, going on to draw a stark contrast between Obama and Mitt Romney, who “lives by a different code. To him, America’s workers are just numbers on a spreadsheet.” Romney is also, by Strickland’s telling, a liar (for accusing Obama of gutting welfare reform), a coward (for hiding his tax returns), and a traitor (for putting his money in offshore bank accounts).
Tammy Duckworth’s appeal to patriotism and to military families was somewhat less aggressive. Duckworth, who flew helicopters in the Iraq War and lost both legs in a crash, is now running for the House in Illinois’s 8th Congressional District. “Barack Obama will never ignore our troops,” she said. “He will fight for them.”
Duckworth’s speech used her experience in battle as a metaphor for the good society—a brilliant move. When she was shot down in battle, she survived because her comrades had her back and rescued her from the wreckage. Building the economy at home, she said, is about “doing for our fellow Americans what my crew did for me.”
That set the theme and the tone for all the primetime speeches. Last week the GOP made “We Built It” the slogan for the first night of their convention, mocking Obama for his “You didn’t build that” line in a recent speech. The theme of Democrats’ first night could have been “We Built It Together.”
The really Rovian element of the evening was that the Democrats, in talking about “together,” foregrounded the role of family. Both the speakers in the final hour, Castro and Michelle Obama, talked at length about how they grew up in poverty, and how the values imparted by parents and grandparents shaped their lives and helped them achieve success.
“Family first” is the only permissible starting point for an argument about the American economy, apparently. After three decades of being hammered by the GOP for lacking in “family values,” Democrats seem to have learned that lesson. Obama’s moving speech even verged on overkill. “Mom-in-chief” is her most important title, she said, and her daughters are the center of her world. Get the point yet?
But if “together” refers primarily to family, Castro, in particular, did an effective job of trying to enlarge the circle of “we.” “We recognize that there are some things we can’t do alone,” he argued. Having good values means little if there are few opportunities, and “we have to come together and invest in prosperity for tomorrow.”
It doesn’t sound like a radical proposition: Private success relies heavily on public investment in all kinds of ways, beginning with education. But with the GOP having “been hijacked by extremists who’ve driven it off the flat earth they believe we’re living on,” as the mayor of Minneapolis put it in his speech, the idea can’t be taken for granted. It’s open to debate. The case for public-sector investment has to be made.
Last night the case was made so well, and so effortlessly, that it’s easy to forget how tone-deaf and clueless Democrats have often been at that task, and how often their candidates have come across as wooden and robotic (Michael Dukakis, Al Gore) or feckless and weak (John Kerry, Walter Mondale). It’s easy to underplay how unusual last night was, and how exceptional Obama—at least the amped-up, campaign-mode Obama, whose spirit presided over the affair—really is.
ABOUT THIS AUTHOR
Theo Anderson, an In These Times staff writer, is writing a book about the historical and contemporary influence of pragmatism on American politics. He has a Ph.D. in American history from Yale University and teaches history and literature seminars at the Newberry Library in Chicago.