By R. Alan Clanton
Thursday Review Editor
Blame it on the heat and humidity.
A week ago, the sweltering nights of Tuesday and Wednesday in Tampa delivered the medium-rare red meat of the headliner Republican speakers—from Chris Christie’s rallying call to the GOP faithful, to Condoleezza Rice’s inspirational paean to hard work and self-reliance, to Paul Ryan’s call for a return to the classic supply-side economics of less government and lower taxes.
With the exception of Clint Eastwood’s surreal bit of improvisation on Thursday, this was the no-frills, low carb, high protein stuff that the Republicans needed to present, the sort of thing that would solidify and energize the party’s base while also enticing independent voters and moderates to get off the fence. In short, last Tuesday and Wednesday consisted of the GOP’s well-orchestrated attempt to bring the Reagan loyalists—Republicans, Independents and even some Democrats—back into the fold.
So it was for the Democrats gathered by the thousands in Charlotte, North Carolina, this week that Tuesday would usher in the reddest of the red meat for the party of FDR, LBJ and Bill Clinton. It seems that the party of soaring rhetoric, relentless progressivism and misty-eyed idealism had spent the previous weeks beating their ploughshares into lethal swords. For some Democrats, this was a welcome catharsis at the very moment when Romney’s post-convention bounce shows him more-or-less even with President Obama in most national polls.
Tuesday’s testosterone-infused highlights included Chicago mayor Rahm Emanuel, Massachusetts governor Deval Patrick, and former Ohio governor Ted Strickland—a parade of street-smart toughs whose sole mission was to bloody Mitt Romney’s nose and crack a few of the governor’s ribs.
“If Mitt Romney was Santa Claus,” Strickland said, assaulting Romney for his work as an investor at Bain Capital, “he’d fire the reindeer and outsource the elves.” Frequently confusing charisma with voice amplification, Strickland bellowed that Romney was so lacking in “economic patriotism, that even his money needs a passport.” Strickland’s hollered, scenery-chewing lines, though a bit over-the-top, drew wild applause and more than a few positive reviews from the crew in the CNN booth.
Massachusetts Governor Deval Patrick delivered a high-octane speech designed to ramp-up the excitement even more. His speech included a ferocious attack on the GOP for its policies of “trickle-down.” Patrick briefly resembled General Patton (the movie version as portrayed by George C. Scott) infusing the troops with fearlessness and gumption.
“My message is this,” Patrick said, “it’s time for Democrats to grow a backbone and stand up for what we believe,” he said, “we’re waiting for the pundits or the polls or the Super PACs to tell us who the next Senator or Congressman is going to be…but we’re Americans, and we shape our own future.”
Patrick listed the some of the President’s biggest accomplishments: affordable health care for all citizens, extracting the U.S. from the war in Iraq, bringing bin Laden to justice, beginning the process of withdrawing from Afghanistan, saving the auto industry from extinction, saving Wall Street from total collapse. But, like Strickland, there was an uncomfortable sense that Patrick was replacing passion with shouting. Still, his line about backbone may have been the best sound bite of the night, and certainly the right sort of rallying call to the party with a President facing a dead heat in many polls.
In some ways, the speeches by Patrick and Strickland represented the best of the Old School of the contemporary Democratic Party—that party which produced the passions of Robert Kennedy and Ted Kennedy, of Jesse Jackson and Gary Hart. In this sense, the Democrats—even the vegetarians among them—had their night of red meat in the blistering summer heat of Charlotte.
But Tuesday also offered conciliatory soft-focus imagery—a few moments of the kinder, gentler Democratic Party. There was a well-produced and evocative video lauding the life of Ted Kennedy, a montage made all the more resonant in the context of Mitt Romney’s nomination in Tampa. It was Romney who gave Kennedy his most harrowing fight for re-election in Massachusetts in 1994, and it was Romney who forced Kennedy out of his comfortable chair and onto his feet, reigniting his old liberal passions.
And, like Ann Romney’s highly anticipated speech to the GOP in Tampa, First Lady Michelle Obama’s address to Democrats in North Carolina was designed to give the proceedings a human, personal connection. The First Lady’s speech was also marketed to attract viewers, for—like the Republican hoedown last week—the Democrats have little to offer in the way of actual drama this year. Barack Obama seeks to be re-elected to the Presidency, but he has faced no challenges from within his own party So for the delegates, alternates and Democratic faithful assembled in Charlotte, the real agenda—aside from energizing the base—is all about reaching out to disaffected, neutral or moderate Democrats, just the sort of voters who might abandon their loyalty to Obama in November and vote instead for Mitt Romney.
Like the GOP’s deliberate outreach to women and to Latinos, the Democratic Party seeks to make the same connections. Michelle Obama may in fact be the most direct route to many women voters in this country, especially those not already predisposed toward the Republican or the Democratic candidates. In that sense, Michelle Obama hit a home run for Democrats.
But that brings us to what may have been the best speech of the Tuesday line-up.
San Antonio Julian Mayor Castro, in an address meant to compete head-on with last week’s parade of Latino speakers at the GOP winding in Tampa. Castro, widely referred to by reporters and columnists was a “rising star” in the Democratic Party, delivered a speech shorn of the contentiousness and aggressiveness of Rahm Emmanuel or Deval Patrick, but equally charged with energy and volume. “We know you can’t be pro-business, unless you’re pro-education.” Castro seemed the perfect antidote to the GOP’s Martinez, Rubio and Fortuno.
Castro said that Romney’s economic plans would “dismantle” the middle class. Referring to Romney’s flip-flop on health care, Castro said that “Governor Romney has undergone an extreme makeover.” Citing the frequently used figure of 4.5 million jobs created during the last three years, and by way of comparing Romney’s vision for economic growth to that of the President, Castro said: “Mitt Romney just doesn’t get it…but Barack Obama gets it.”
Even the venue is part of the Democratic Party’s goal of maximum nutritional value. Like the GOP’s choice of Florida, and like the so-called “Florida Night” during the convention in Tampa (Connie Mack IV, Jeb Bush, Marco Rubio, to name a few), the Democratic Party seeks to tip the balance in a key state. Why not hold the convention in Chicago? New York? Los Angeles? Philadelphia? Baltimore? Or some other city traditionally inclined toward Democratic Party politics? Because those cities are in states—though important in the arithmetic of the Electoral College—that are already safely ensconced behind Blue State battle lines.
North Carolina sits on the front lines of the battleground states, that elite group of seven states (including Virginia, Ohio, Florida, Colorado, Nevada and Iowa) which may very well decide the outcome of this election for the rest of the country. That means that the Tar Heel State will remain relevant to the Democratic Party long after the convention-goers leave the heat of Charlotte and head for their homes.