It’s now clear that the frame of the Democratic National Convention and the overriding message of President Barack Obama’s re-election campaign was spelled out in his September 2011 address to Congress. It was then he argued that the “notion that the only thing we can do to restore prosperity is just dismantle government, refund everybody’s money, and let everyone write their own rules, and tell everyone they’re on their own — that’s not who we are. That’s not the story of America.”
After watching Mitt Romney, Paul Ryan and the Republicans in Tampa glorify selfish individualism and financial success, after witnessing a lack of common purpose so complete that the GOP failed even to thank America’s troops on the battlefield, the Democrats in Charlotte used their convention as a teachable moment to offer up a civics lesson.
From Michelle Obama (who redefined “success” as a family value) and Julian Castro to Bill Clinton, Joe Biden and Obama himself –“the president” has reminded his supporters and deniers alike – speakers described who Obama is, who we are and who we are not. A clear bright line was drawn between the values that make us a community versus the Lord of the Flies vision that Romney & Co. see in America.
“We’re not entitled to success. We have to earn it. We honor the strivers, the dreamers, the risk-takers who have always been the driving force behind our free enterprise system — the greatest engine of growth and prosperity the world has ever known,” Obama said.
“But we also believe in something called citizenship — a word at the very heart of our founding, at the very essence of our democracy; the idea that this country only works when we accept certain obligations to one another, and to future generations.”
Open Door Policy
Or, as Michelle put it more simply about her husband: “He believes that when you’ve worked hard and done well and walked through that doorway of opportunity, you do not slam it shut behind you — you reach back, and you give other folks the same chances that helped you succeed.”
“That’s who we are,” speakers kept saying. “That’s who he is,” they said of Obama. “That’s not who we are,” they insisted in response to the self-absorbed dystopia described by the Republicans.
“Of all the fictions we heard last week in Tampa, the one I find most troubling is this: If we all just go our own way, our nation will be stronger for it,” said Castro, the San Antonio Mayor and keynote speaker. “Because if we sever the threads that connect us, the only people who will go far are those who are already ahead. We all understand that freedom isn’t free. What Romney and Ryan don’t understand is that neither is opportunity. We have to invest in it.
“Republicans tell us that if the most prosperous among us do even better, that somehow the rest of us will too. Folks, we’ve heard that before. First they called it ‘trickle-down.’ Then ‘supply-side.’ Now it’s ‘Romney-Ryan.’ Or is it ‘Ryan-Romney’? Either way, their theory has been tested. It failed. Our economy failed. The middle class paid the price. Your family paid the price.
“Mitt Romney just doesn’t get it. But Barack Obama gets it,” Castro said.
The Big Dog Barks
While Clinton delivered one of the greatest (and perhaps most pivotal) convention speeches of all time, deconstructing Romney and Ryan point by point, Obama offered little in the way of soaring oratory. He did not seek to rile our passions. Which was smart.
He has learned what he naively did not suspect four years ago: That if the other party, as Senate Republican Leader Mitch McConnell made plain, is dedicated to preventing you from accomplishing anything of significance and sees compromise as capitulation, that to make promises is to set yourself up for failure.
The pundits and commentators who found Obama’s speech lacking in poetry, prose and policies are missing this point: Obama has learned not to pledge to do what he can’t deliver. And while, as Clinton noted, the president is still willing to work on constructive compromise, he would be a fool to expect it from the GOP-led Congress.
“While I’m proud of what we’ve achieved together, I’m far more mindful of my own failings, knowing exactly what Lincoln meant when he said, ‘I have been driven to my knees many times by the overwhelming conviction that I had no place else to go,’” Obama said with welcome humility.
As Jon Stewart so aptly put it: “The challenge for this president was to replace the audacity of hope with the more reasonable calibration of expectation. And then, ultimately, less we still believe too fervently, in the power of one man.”
Old Man vs Strong Women
In place of an angry old man yelling at a chair, the Democrats offered up the likes of Tammy Duckworth, Iraq War vet and former U.S. Army helicopter pilot whose combat wounds cost her both of her legs and damaged her right arm, former U.S. Rep. Gabby Giffords, Sandra Fluke and Lilly Ledbetter.
It wasn’t a perfect convention by any means: Chairman Antonio Villaraigosa should have just ramrodded God and Jerusalem (which never should have been removed) into the platform without allowing time for a dust-up; Jennifer Granholm needed to contain her wild gesticulation, Joe Biden should never be allowed to use the word “literally” again, literally. And there were other glitches.
But as the Obama “bounce” in the polls is now demonstrating – and it looks to be at least four points and maybe as much as eight – the Democrats succeeded in their mission of rallying viewers around their ticket.
That’s because the election really is a choice between two competing sets of values and individuals, not just a referendum on the economy, as Team Romney-Ryan was hoping.
“When you pick up that ballot to vote, you will face the clearest choice of any time in a generation,” Obama argued. “Over the next few years big decisions will be made in Washington on jobs, the economy, taxes and deficits, energy, education, war and peace – decisions that will have a huge impact on our lives and on our children’s lives for decades to come.
“And on every issue, the choice you face won’t just be between two candidates or two parties. It will be a choice between two different paths for America, a choice between two fundamentally different visions for the future.”
The Republicans set out to prove that Mitt Romney has a heart. Whether they succeeded is arguable. The Democrats set out to show that Obama has a hard head. Which was difficult to debate with Biden and others hammering home the message that Bin Laden is dead and GM is alive.