Construction Literary Magazine

Fall 2020

First Night of the DNC: A Good Night for Non-Politicians

First Night of the DNC: A Good Night for Non-Politicians

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Michelle Obama stole the show last night, delivering a speech that received reviews ranging from excellent to masterful. Even those skeptical of our tradition of requiring the spouses of politicians to stump for their significant others—such as Construction’s own Ben Hoffman—were impressed. Michelle’s speech hit similar notes to Ann Romney’s about her and her husband’s humble beginnings, but with greater force and credibility given how different the Obamas’ story is from that of the Romneys’. Michelle then tied the personal to the political, offering her and Barack’s story as a rebuke to the philosophy of government of Mitt Romney and the Republican Party—though she maintained her above-the-fray credibility by not explicitly referring to the other side.

A point I made last week about Ann Romney could also apply to Michelle Obama: her effectiveness, politically, is limited somewhat because she is the type of woman—smart, funny, strong-willed—you would expect Barack Obama to be married to. To his supporters, she reflects his best qualities—young, cool, reflecting hope for a better future—while to his critics, she reflects what they see as his worst qualities—arrogant, paternalistic, and lacking in reverence for American traditions. Michelle, however, has two large advantages over Ann. One is that far more Americans like Barack than like Mitt. And it’s much easier to remind voters why they like your husband than to convince them that they should like him. Secondly, Michelle, as first lady, has had far more opportunities to practice her public speaking. Part of the power of Michelle’s speech came from it being delivered with the polish of a seasoned politician by someone the nation knows to have been reluctantly dragged into the arena of politics.

[pullquote_right]Michelle Obama and Julian Castro’s speeches demonstrated the advantage the Democrats have in going last.[/pullquote_right]

The night’s other headline speaker, Julian Castro, came into last night with a nearly impossible task: being the young, unheard of, non-white keynote speaker at a Democratic convention with Barack Obama at the top of the ticket. (In hindsight, knowing what kind of speech was to follow his, Castro never really had a chance.)  When I heard that Castro had been tapped as the keynote speaker, I was skeptical. He seemed redundant, too much like an effort to recapture the magic of 2004 when the magician himself would be speaking later in the week. Too much positivity in an election where arguably, the Democrats’ greatest strength is how unlikeable their opponent is. But, while Castro’s speech focused mainly on his own inspirational tale, it also had more of an edge than I expected. He delivered effective sound bites hitting Romney’s two greatest weaknesses—that his privileged background and personal wealth puts him out of touch with most voters and his history of politically expedient changes of heart. On the first, Castro recounted Romney telling a group of students that they should borrow money from their parents to start a business, to which Castro sarcastically replied, “Gee, why didn’t I think of that?” On the second, Castro faked out the crowd during the “Mitt Romney says ‘no’!” call-and-response portion of the speech, pointing out that on the issue of “expanding access to good health care,” “Mitt Romney said ‘yes,’ and now he says ‘no.’”

Michelle Obama and Julian Castro’s speeches demonstrated the advantage the Democrats have in going last. At their convention, Republicans held their vision for America up against a straw man of a Democratic vision of making people entirely dependent on government. Several speakers told tales of their parents or grandparents working hard to enter the middle class, emphasizing that they didn’t want or need the help of government to do so. Obama and Castro reclaimed that narrative, telling their own upward mobility stories but emphasizing our shared responsibility to ensure that such mobility remains possible. Castro cleverly framed the Democratic vision as investing in success—providing education, infrastructure, and a safety net while allowing personal initiative to do the rest—in contrast to the Republican caricature of Democrats wishing for government to directly meet all of everyone’s needs.

Some other takeaways from Night One:

Answering a question we tackled in our DNC preview, Democrats appear ready to go on the offensive on the Affordable Care Act, even embracing the once-pejorative “Obamacare.” While Health and Human Services Secretary Kathleen Sebilius gave a comprehensive defense of the policy, the most powerful case for Obamacare was made by Stacey Lihn. Lihn’s daughter Zoe was diagnosed in the womb with a congenital heart defect, and without Obamacare having banned insurance companies from putting lifetime limits on benefits, the Lihn family would not have been able to afford the multiple surgeries Zoe has already received. With her daughter crying beside her, Lihn spoke angrily about her fear that a President Romney could repeal Obamacare and put her family at risk of not being able to afford Zoe’s next surgery.

[pullquote_left]Massachusetts Governor Deval Patrick got the better of Maryland Governor Martin O’Malley.[/pullquote_left]

Last night was a good night for non-politicians. In addition to Lihn, Lilly Ledbetter gave a stirring address on gender pay disparity with some tough shots at Romney—“Maybe 23 cents doesn’t sound like a lot to someone with a Swiss bank account, Cayman Island Investments and an IRA worth tens of millions of dollars. But Governor Romney, when we lose 23 cents every hour, every day, every paycheck, every job, over our entire lives, what we lose can’t just be measured in dollars.” Ledbetter’s gender-based pay discrimination suit led to an atrocious Supreme Court decision, which in turn led to the Lilly Ledbetter Fair Pay Act, the first piece of legislation signed by Barack Obama. Ledbetter speaks with a deep Southern accent, sounding neither like a politician nor like a liberal activist and lending her credibility as someone who just wanted to fight for what was fair.

In a potential preview of the 2016 Democratic Primary, Massachusetts Governor Deval Patrick got the better of Maryland Governor Martin O’Malley. Patrick’s speech brought the crowd to its feet (though it confused Politico), while O’Malley (already in some trouble with the party) gave a generic address with a kind of creepy smile plastered on his face. I expected better from Tommy Carcetti. Patrick overreached, though probably a calculated overreach, in boasting of Massachusetts leading the nation in “health care coverage”—whether he wants to take it or not, credit for that distinction belongs mainly to one Willard Mitt Romney.

Finally, one of the convention’s tougher shots at Governor Romney came early in the evening during a tribute video to the late Ted Kennedy (the last Democratic convention not to feature Sen. Edward Kennedy (D-MA) was the convention at which his brother was nominated). The video featured footage from the 1994 senatorial debate between Kennedy and Romney in which Romney declared himself supportive of Roe v. Wade and a woman’s right to choose, while Kennedy hit Romney as being “multiple choice” on abortion. Republican National Committee chair Reince Preibus quickly hit the Democrats for being “classless“ for using Kennedy in this way. It will be interesting to see if Republicans maintain this talking point. I doubt it, mainly because the underlying debate footage is so bad for Romney; giving it attention is likely to do him more damage than it does the Democrats. Furthermore, I doubt they’d get anywhere with the public claiming that Ted Kennedy would somehow be dishonored by having his name invoked in trying to get a Democrat elected president.