The Democratic Party Finds Its Backbone

Massachusetts governor Deval Patrick brings the backbone.

By Bob Cesca: I’ve been following politics for most of my life, and while I’ve always felt energized by the potential and history of liberal policy-making, I’ve never felt like my chosen party reflected that energy or lived up to my expectations for it. Frankly, the Democrats have tended to disappoint more than they’ve impressed, and I’m not the only one who’s noticed. Evidently Deval Patrick has, too. More on that presently.

The party has struggled to shake an almost sleepy, flustered attitude, more interested in the noble even strain than the passionate barn burning many of us have wanted it to be. It’s been disorganized, crumpled, fumbly and hopelessly off message — almost out of breath — and all too willing to fearfully bend over backwards to avoid saying anything that might incite a counterattack from the other side.

But the Democratic Party on display last night is decidedly a brand new Democratic Party, if not in substance, almost certainly in style. The line-up of speakers presented on the first day of the convention was an extraordinary breath of fresh air — and a much needed shot of enthusiasm and electricity. Throughout the proceedings, I literally kept thinking to myself, what the hell party is hosting this convention because it certainly doesn’t sound like the Democrats of four, eight or twelve years ago? Who are these people? They’re razor sharp; they’re unafraid to seize the initiative and stick it to the Republican nominee; they’re energized; they’re inspired; and, chiefly, they sound strong. Surely they can’t be Democrats.

The Democrats never used to sound that way. Even when John Kerry opened his 2004 acceptance speech with the line, “I’m John Kerry reporting for duty!” it sounded desperate — it sounded like, “I’m John Kerry and I’m trying really, really hard to sound badass but I’m not.” Sure, it was a nod to his Vietnam service, but it landed with thud mainly because the rest of his speech was entirely forgettable in both tone and content. Come to think of it, whenever the party used to feel a little too spineless and defensive, it would simply mimick the style and policies of the Republicans. But the Republicans have always been effective at telling American voters what they stand for, and so you’d think somewhere along the line (prior to this week) the Democrats would get a clue and do the same: to unapologetically stand up for Democratic and liberal values.

Last night, the Democratic Party was, for the first time in memory, boldly and fearlessly related its core values — what it stands for, without attempting to trick Americans into thinking its merely the Republican Party With A Heart. Finally, one speaker after another — from Ted Strickland to Deval Patrick to the First Lady — described what it means to be a liberal, and they did it in a way that resonated as the obvious reflection of American middle and working class values.

Of course none of this would be possible without world-class speeches, one after another, with hardly a dud in the batch.

The most surprising address was Lilly Ledbetter, the woman behind the fair pay law, who, if you were only listening to the convention, could easily have been mistaken for the legendary former governor of Texas Ann Richards. She also had one of the most memorable lines about how 23 cents, the difference in pay per dollar between men and women, doesn’t mean much to someone with “a Swiss bank account.”

Former governor of Ohio Ted Strickland was clearly the most loud and forceful of the speakers, and even though not every beat was a hit, we need more of this kind of, well, shouting. Democrats fancy themselves to be intellectual and therefore raising our voices is somehow tasteless. Nonsense. Democrats don’t always have to yell, but sometimes it’s the best way to lend fire to the cause. Strickland, who delivered his barn-burner with a devilish smile, was the only speaker to accuse Mitt Romney of “lying,” and of “hiding” his financial history. He also attacked “Mitt” directly and relentlessly with lines underscoring Romney’s elitist wealthy tax dogdes, “Mitt has so little economic patriotism, that even his money needs a passport — it’s summers on the beaches of the Cayman Islands and winters on the slopes of the Swiss Alps.”

San Antonio, Texas Mayor Julian Castro will surely become a household name after his keynote not just because of the efficacy of his address, but also the fact that in both age and ethnicity he, like the president, looks like America’s demographic future. He’ll almost certainly going to be a serious presidential contender in the coming decades. Unlike Chris Christie’s baffling speech about “love versus respect” with barely a mention of Romney, Castro effectively wove his personal story with a pitch for the president’s record in even doses.

What can I say — the First Lady’s speech was arguably one of the great political addresses in Democratic history. In and amongst the personal stories of her life with the president and her struggles to raise her daughters, she also delivered a gut punch to Mitt Romney’s issues with tax returns, tax shelters and the serial mendacity of his campaign: “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.”

Massachusetts governor Deval Patrick’s speech was easily the second best of the night, though I wish he had swapped places with the mostly forgettable Martin O’Malley speech and appeared in the 10 p.m. network coverage hour. More than anyone else, Patrick represented the exact tone I’m talking about here. Bold, fearless, oratorically powerful and inspiring. The only “problem” with Patrick’s address was this line: “It’s time for Democrats to grow a backbone and stand up for what we believe.” While I absolutely agree, I think the line was a few days too late. The Democratic Party that appeared in Charlotte last night boasted a massive backbone reinforced with indestructible adamantium.

Now the challenge will be to build on this momentum through the next two nights.

Adding… Some additional thoughts. Wishful thinking but I hope the Democrats re-air the Ted Kennedy video footage from his 1994 senatorial debate against Mitt Romney sometime during the 10 p.m. network television time slot. In the video, after Romney swears that he’s pro-choice, Kennedy turned to Romney and replied, “Mitt Romney isn’t pro-choice. He’s multiple choice.” Brilliant line. I also like the personal story of the family whose young daughter, Stacy, is directly benefiting from the Affordable Care Act’s elimination of lifetime limits on insurance benefits. Without Obamacare, this family would’ve used up their designated lifetime coverage amount and lost their health insurance. The Democrats need to continue to illustrate the real world advantages of Obamacare and seriously own the law. It will only help them in the long run.

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