The Democrats aren’t known for running campaigns, to say the least. With “you didn’t build that” still ringing in my ears, I wasn’t looking forward to covering another week of political conventions. I’ll be honest, I went into the first night of Democratic National Convention with low hopes. But by the end of the night, I was moved to tears.
Not only were the DNC’s speakers heartfelt, they tackled nearly every other controversial campaign issue – and for once the party owned it. Unlike the RNC, the speakers who brought their background onto the convention floor acknowledged all of the help they had, and all of the great opportunities that came to them specifically from living in America. And while most of the convention was spent extolling the various accomplishments of the president, the Republicans were sternly taken to task – both directly and implicitly.
Sincerity, personal triumph, and community were central at the DNC on Tuesday. These are the moments that pulled hardest at my liberal bleeding heart.
Ted Kennedy Retrospective - This convention marked the first in decades that the late senator was not alive for. The DNC compiled a touching retrospective about his greatest political causes, namely civil rights and health care. Of course, in true Ted Kennedy fashion, the DNC also took the time to snark Mitt Romney’s ever-changing views. It injected some humor into a solemn occasion, and the crowd loved it.
The Lihn Family’s Obamacare Testimony - Tonight marked the first time that the Democrats have actually stepped up and owned the president’s health care legacy. And while I wish it had come a few years earlier, they really stuck to their guns. Stacey Lihn, a young mother of two little girls, took the stage after a video explained her youngest daughter Zoe’s congenital heart defect. Without Obamacare’s removal of lifetime caps, Zoe’s heart surgeries would have exhausted her lifetime cap before she entered kindergarten. With Stacey at the podium and her husband and two little girls by her side, it was hard not to get choked up. This was a real, personal example of the accomplishments of health care reform – a policy that, in theory, most Americans already agree with.
Julian Castro - The son of a civil rights activist and the mayor of San Antonio – who was introduced by his twin brother – gave a rousing speech to the DNC. Castro brought down the house by telling the story of his immigrant grandmother who despite never making it past the fourth grade taught herself to read and write in two languages. He credited his success and his brother’s success to a country where “great journeys can be made in a single generation”. By the time he finished his speech with an account of carrying his daughter into her first day of pre-school and whispering to her the same words his grandmother used to tell him and his brother, there wasn’t a dry eye in the convention center.
Michelle Obama - When it comes to heart, the first lady definitely came in, well, first. Not only did Ms. Obama paint a much more believable portrait of a young couple in struggle than Ann Romney, her description of her own family life was heartfelt and touching. And after she applauded all of the hard work that her family and her husband’s family put in to succeed and build a better life for the first couple, she issued a stern dictum on American values that was no doubt directed squarely at the Romney/Ryan ticket: “We learned about honesty and integrity – that the truth matters…that you don’t take shortcuts or play by your own set of rules…and success doesn’t count unless you earn it fair and square.”
We ALL Built That - The Republican mantra did not go unaddressed at the first day of the convention. Multiple speakers brought up things like Pell Grants, public school, health care reform, the civil rights movement, and the Lily Ledbetter Paycheck Fairness Act. In her speech, Michelle Obama gave credit to the “many people [who] had a hand in our success, from the teachers who inspired us to the janitors who kept our school clean…and we were taught to value everyone’s contribution and treat everyone with respect.” And the convention’s theme had a simple message that was much less petty than the petulant “We Built This” of the RNC: “Stronger Together.”
Tammy Duckworth - There’s not much that can be said about this tough as nails Congressional candidate, double amputee and Iraq War veteran from Illinois. But Ms. Duckworth had plenty to say about the Republican nominee, who in her words “ignored Afghanistan.” Duckworth claimed that Romney missed a golden opportunity to stand up for men and women in uniform, and squandered it in favor of criticizing the president.
Governor Pat Quinn - Illinois Governor Pat Quinn – another Democrat Republicans would likely prefer were “back in Chicago” – wasted no time calling out Republicans on the lies of their Tampa convention. Not only was it nice to see a Democrat outside of the Obama campaign responding effectively to attacks, it was nice to have someone acknowledge that facts matter, even in a highly charged presidential campaign. Quinn tackled Republican lies about Obama’s stance on welfare, Medicare, and even the Janesville GM plant mentioned in Paul Ryan’s now infamous RNC speech.
Governor Deval Patrick - Easily one of the best speakers at the convention, current Massachusetts Governor Deval Patrick energized the crowd by calling Mitt Romney’s time as governor the way he saw it. Patrick, Romney’s successor, pointed to the candidate’s massive cuts to education, low rank in job creation, and wasted clean energy potential. After detailing what he perceived to be the Romney administration’s failures, he drew a sharp contrast with the Obama administration which he claimed had the record to go the distance.
The Crowd Goes Wild - You’d be hard pressed to find a more starkly different group of attendees than those at the RNC versus the DNC. Not only was the crowd much more diverse and much younger, it was electric. The call and answer components of speeches rocked the house. And at the start of the speeches, when the DNC asked the crowd if anyone seconded the motion to adopt the party’s new platform – which defends both marriage equality and reproductive choice – thousands of simultaneous seconds rang out. The excitement was palpable, even if the party has suffered some serious crises of confidence after the massive blows of the 2010 election and the slow to recover economy.
Rising Stars - Just like 2004 was the country’s introduction to Barack Obama, tonight’s speakers were a veritable who’s who of new faces in the Democratic Party. The mayor of Newark, Cory Booker, became a household name recently when he dashed into a burning building to rescue his neighbor, and many hope he’ll run against Chris Christie for governor next year. Tammy Duckworth was absolutely delightful, and she will be a party player regardless of the outcome of her race against Joe Walsh. Lily Ledbetter, whose name adorns the Paycheck Fairness Act, had some of the best (and best-delivered) lines of the night. The Castro twins dazzled the crowd, as did Governor Deval Patrick. (While I was fantasizing about a Clinton/Patrick ticket in 2016, Tumblr seemed keen on a Castro/Castro ticket – and I have to admit that the idea of the two of them “switching positions” for laughs is pretty great.)
All in all, I was pleasantly surprised by the Democrats. Not only did the party finally own up to President Obama’s biggest achievements, the speakers were firm, making it clear that while hope and change are still part of their foundation, those ideas are now ground in policy. Time will tell whether or not this newfound boldness will translate into actual legislative boldness, but it’s nice to finally see a Democratic spine in a campaign regardless.