There are many constituencies courted and causes highlighted during a political convention.
A party first tries to energize its base by highlighting all they loathe about the opposition, as an array of Democratic speakers did on Tuesday.
Next they remind disappointed or lukewarm supporters of the reasons to rally round their own candidate. From there, they reach out to persuade undecideds and independents, a task so towering in importance that Obama turned to Bill Clinton to undertake it on Wednesday.
So far, Democrats have reason to be pleased with their convention. Although too many speeches fell into the category of predictable palaver, several of Tuesday’s were both clarifying and thought-provoking.
Massachusetts Governor Deval Patrick, whose rhetoric is usually carefully calibrated and conciliatory, dialed up the declamation, delivering an unusually fiery address in defense of his friend the president.
“The list of accomplishments is long, impressive, and barely told — and even more impressive when you consider that congressional Republicans have made obstruction itself the centerpiece of their governing strategy,” he declared. Patrick’s right on both points — and as an exercise in energizing the base, his address was memorable enough to leave a lingering impression, which was no doubt the accomplished orator’s dual-purposed intent.
First lady Michelle Obama’s winning speech invited comparisons with Ann Romney’s address last week in Tampa. The judgment here: If Mrs. Romney hit a triple, Mrs. Obama cleared the fences.
Here’s why. Mrs. Romney’s speech was a testament to her husband’s character. And certainly his love of family, his devotion to faith, his generous acts, and his hard work all speak well of him. Yet given the Draconian fiscal policies he has embraced, there’s no compelling link between Romney’s character and public policy, no clear way his private kindness extends beyond the reach of his private activity or charity.
That’s not the case with Obama. In her speech, Mrs. Obama emphasized how her husband’s own life informed the course he’d pursued as president on matters ranging from taxes to equal pay to health care. One of her best examples was education.
“When it comes to giving our kids the education they deserve, Barack knows that, like me and like so many of you, he never could’ve attended college without financial aid,” she said. “That’s why Barack has fought so hard to increase student aid and keep interest rates down.”
That was the same essential point San Antonio Mayor Julián Castro made about the GOP’s showcasing of individual success in Tampa: “We all celebrate individual success. But the question is, how do we multiply that success?”
Romney’s candidacy lacks that kind of nexus between character and cause. Unless, that is, one buys the notion that it’s worth deeper cuts in programs that benefit moderate and middle earners in order to preserve tax cuts for upper earners in the hope that doing so will spur more job creation. Or that Obamacare’s economic costs and infringements on personal liberty are so weighty that they trump the good that comes of the law.
That’s easier to assert in the airy abstract than in the poignant particular, a point eloquently made by Stacey Lihn, whose daughter Zoe was born with a life-threatening heart defect. The expense of multiple surgeries would someday have exceeded their health plan’s lifetime cap on coverage had Obamacare not prohibited such limitations, she said.
“Governor Romney says people like me were the most excited about President Obama the day we voted for him,” Lihn said. “But that’s not true. Not even close. For me, there was the day the Affordable Care Act passed and I no longer had to worry about Zoe getting the care she needed. There was the day the letter arrived from the insurance company, saying that our daughter’s lifetime cap had been lifted. There was the day the Supreme Court upheld Obamacare.”
And yet, she said, she was also scared that, if Romney is elected, Obamacare will be repealed — and the lifetime care caps will return.
From a New England perspective, it was also interesting to hear from former Rhode Island Republican senator Lincoln Chafee, now the state’s independent governor. It’s no surprise that Chafee is backing Obama; he also supported the Democrat in 2008 and is one of Obama’s national co-chairs this year. Still, his critique of today’s GOP rang true. He said the party’s rightward lurch had left little room for moderates who cared about environmental protection, personal liberties, prudence in foreign policy, and fiscal responsibility.
“Because [those values] have no place in today’s Republican Party, neither do I — and neither do millions like me,” he declared.
Chafee is not a stem-winding orator. Far from it. And yet, during an evening of humid speechifying, his understated, flourish-free, matter-of-fact speech was one that really stood out.