Writing yesterday afternoon, I expressed some ambivalence about the warm-up activities here in Charlotte and my eagerness to get on with the show. Well, that ambivalence is now gone. The Convention’s opening night was exceptionally impressive, with speeches and videos that were moving, funny, powerful, and pointed — with a confident, coherent message that bound together the entire program. And the evening was capped off by a speech from First Lady Michelle Obama that has to rank as one of the great Convention performances in modern history. More on that below.
First, a little setting of the scene. After passing a gauntlet of security and small clusters of rain-drenched protesters (I couldn’t quite make out what they were protesting), most delegates took their seats at about 5:00 pm, just as the official program was getting underway. The energy level was high even early in the evening, and it built as things progressed toward prime time. The New York delegation, as previously reported, was sited quite far away from the podium, with more desirable seating assigned to swing states and, of course, to Illinois, Delaware, and North Carolina. We grumbled a bit, but only in a good-natured way, and there was a nice feeling of camaraderie among attendees. Being so distant, we could only observe the proceedings on the large electronic screen, so, as a purely visual experience, the Convention was not much different from watching at home. In every other respect, however, it felt different, more interesting and much more participatory. Signs corresponding to particular speeches were distributed efficiently, and we all hoisted them on cue — thus discharging the primary duty of a modern-day Convention delegate: television prop.
The themes of the night were driven home by speaker after speaker, with surprising discipline. And while the trappings of this or any other Convention can easily be characterized as superficial, the content was substantive and important. I heard four basic messages:
We Are Making Progress — Are we better off than we were four years ago? You bet! The President inherited an economy in free-fall, shedding hundreds of thousands of jobs every month and with a financial system nearing collapse. Since then, the private sector has created more than 4.5 million new jobs. Yes, the economy is still struggling and our work is far from done — we all know it, and I feel it every day wrestling with New Rochelle’s budget challenges. But Republicans are banking on a kind of national amnesia that forgets the disastrous conditions that resulted from his predecessor’s policies and ignores the positive trend line under Obama.
Real Lives Hang in the Balance — Again and again, speakers and videos illustrated how real people were positively affected by the President’s actions. This was particularly true of health insurance reform. There was nothing defensive or sheepish about the all-out celebration of Obamacare. And given the confusing and often misleading rhetoric surrounding the subject of health care, it was good to be reminded of the essentials: tens of millions of Americans will now have access to affordable, quality health care; and no one will be denied care because of pre-existing conditions or lifetime benefit caps. Those are huge accomplishments, and they matter.
The Alternative is a Proven Failure — The Romney platform doubles-down on all the bad ideas that got our country into a mess in the first place: raise taxes and cut benefits for the middle class and working families; provide huge tax breaks to the well-off; and eviscerate essential investments that drive long-term economic growth in education, infrastructure, research, and clean energy. I happen to think that the approach contained in the GOP platform and articulated in the GOP House budget is deeply flawed at the level of principle, but even if you put that aside and look at things from a purely practical perspective: their strategy has been a total bust. It hasn’t worked, and it won’t work. Why would we ever go back to a plan of action that is a proven failure?
We’re Stronger Together — If there is a core distinction between Democrats and Republicans (at least at the national level), it is that Democrats see a broader role for public action in promoting individual opportunity and advancing the common good, while Republicans believe that public action restrains or discourages private initiative to the detriment of all. In a campaign, there is a tendency to reduce these philosophies to caricature, so let’s be fair: Democrats really do believe in free market capitalism and celebrate individual achievement, and Republicans really do understand that there is a legitimate role for government in a functioning society. But the differences are real and meaningful. And I thought yesterday’s speakers did a wonderful job of laying out the Democratic brief: for an individual’s hard work to pay off, for a business to succeed, and for a nation to prosper, we need schools that are capable of educating and training tomorrow’s workers, we need infrastructure that can transport goods efficiently, we need basic research that can foster new technologies and products, we need an environment that is conducive to public health. In short, there are some things (lots of things) that we can ONLY do together.
Now for some reviews. Nothing especially original about them, and most of these impressions seem to be pretty widely shared.
Most Powerful — The most powerful presentations did not come from the professional politicians, but from average folks who described their own experiences: the parent of a child with a congenital heart defect, a firefighter from Cincinnati who affirmed the value of public service, the mother of four boys in the military (with a fifth also bound for service). In the end, anecdotes are not a great guide to action — you need harder and broader evidence — but personal testimonials make the stakes of public action much more vivid and understandable. And the poise of these non-professional speakers in the glare of the television lights was just remarkable.
Best Speeches (On The Undercard) — I’d give the nod to three. First, Newark Mayor Cory Booker, who made a forceful case for Democratic values and really connected with the crowd. Second, former Ohio Governor Ted Strickland, who used humor and some lacerating language to just pummel Romney. Strickland’s speech was probably the most polarizing of the night — ambrosia for the Democratic partisans, probably too combative for others. It wouldn’t have been appropriate as the evening’s entree, but worked well as an appetizer. Third, Massachusetts Governor Deval Patrick, who radiated strength and conviction. I hadn’t heard him speak at length before now and was very impressed.
Best Video — There were a number of very well-produced videos that interspersed the speeches. The best was a tribute reel to Ted Kennedy, which included a clip from his 1994 senatorial debate with Mitt Romney. Let’s just say that this clip will not be appearing in any Romney ads. Brutal.
Most Disappointing Speech — I have to give this one to Maryland Governor Martin O’Malley, who spoke immediately before the keynote. Maybe it’s because O’Malley had the misfortune of following Deval Patrick, but he came across as lacking gravity — a speech than in both content and delivery was light as a feather. Not a great start for O’Malley’s rumored 2016 presidential bid. (But then Bill Clinton bombed at the 1988 Democratic convention, and then made out quite well four years later, so who knows?)
Most Potential (But Still Not Quite There) — Aside from the First Lady, the most anticipated speech of the night was the keynote from San Antonio Mayor Julian Castro. I had a mixed reaction to this one. On the one hand, Castro himself was enormously appealing — relaxed, conversational, smart, and with an engaging personal story. (He may also have the best smile I have ever seen in any public official. If that sounds a little silly, view him yourself and see if you don’t agree.) On the other hand, I thought the text of his speech could have been tighter and more focused, the points made a little more clearly and memorably. Make no mistake, this was a good speech. It just wasn’t a great one, and given the prominence of the keynote, I wanted great.
Event of the Night, By Far — If you didn’t see it live, do yourself a favor and watch a replay of Michelle Obama’s speech. I’ve read some of the commentary this morning and can’t add much to the general consensus . . . it was as close to perfect as a speech can be. She managed all at once to be down-to-earth and impossibly glamorous, and she connected to the experience of national leadership to the lives touched by her and the President’s service. Watching her, what I felt most was intense pride that this was our nation’s First Lady. What a way to end the night.
This morning’s activities are fairly light, so, in addition to writing this post, I am going to focus from afar on a variety of City issues. I get antsy being away from my desk for too long, and am glad to have a few hours to catch up on business. Later today, there are a couple of functions for municipal officials, then it is back to the arena for Bill Clinton. Clinton has a tough act to follow, but he’s no slouch himself.