Friday, September 07, 2012

Thursday at the Democratic National Convention

I commented Tuesday and Wednesday nights, two fantastic nights for the Democrats in Charlotte, but it was all pointing to tonight, to Vice President Biden and then, just now, to President Obama. Here are my thoughts:

It was another strong day -- meaning that the convention proved to be an outstanding event, with three days showcasing the party at its finest. (And let's not forget how moving it was when Gabby Giffords appeared on stage to lead the Pledge of Allegiance.)

Former Michigan Gov. Jennifer Granholm was excellent, as usual. She's presidential in her own right, though of course, having been born in Canada, she can't be president.

Montana Gov. Brian Schweitzer was typically pugnacious, if not terribly compelling. Honestly, I think I've already forgotten most of what he said.

Former Florida Gov. (and Republican) Charlie Crist was given a prominent speaking slot on the final day of the convention just before the big three (Kerry, Biden, Obama) -- and perhaps it had to be that way given that he's a former Republican who is deeply critical of the Republican Party (saying that he didn't leave the GOP, the GOP left him, just as Reagan once explained his break from the Democratic Party) and is from key-swing-state Florida -- but I found his speech flat. He hit all the right points, but I'm not sure he did much to give Obama any sort of boost among independents and/or in Florida.

But then the evening really took off.

I've always liked John Kerry. A lot. To me, he's an incredibly decent, intelligent, and honorable man. I still harbor immense frustration and disappointment from the 2004 election.

But give him credit. It was a tough defeat to a terrible incumbent, with the shadow of 9/11 still hanging over the country and the Iraq War not yet quite the unmitigated disaster it became, but he want back to the Senate and established himself as the Democrats' elder statesman on foreign and military policy. So much so that he was in serious contention for the secretary of state post that eventually went to Hillary and could very well get the job when Hillary steps down, likely not long after the upcoming election. In my view, he deserves it and would do an outstanding job.

Mitt Romney and Paul Ryan are incredibly weak on foreign and military policy, as well as on national security generally. Romney's disastrous foreign trip to England, Poland, and Israel this summer, along with the many embarrassing and ridiculous comments he has made during the campaign (e.g., Russia is America's #1 enemy), showed what a dangerous combination of arrogance and ignorance he would bring to the White House.

And so there was perhaps no better figure (given that Hillary as secretary of state shouldn't really get involved in partisan politics) to raise foreign and military policy at the convention and to draw the clear distinctions between President Obama and his opponent, and between the two parties generally: "We have a president who has made America lead like America again," he said. "What is there on the other side? An extreme and expedient candidate, who lacks the judgment and the vision so vital in the Oval Office." There's the contrast. There's the choice.

And then there was one of his best lines, and one of the best lines of the convention, a direct response to the Republican "are you better off than you were four years ago?" nonsense: "Ask Osama bin Laden if he is better off now than he was four years ago."

To that, Mitt Romney has no response.

Joe Biden is always a concern. I think his propensity for making gaffes is way overblown, but there always seems to be the rist that he'll say something embarrassing. Tonight, he didn't. The only "gaffe" of sorts I caught was when he said Michelle Obama gave her speech last night (Wednesday) and then immediately corrected himself by saying it was on Monday. (It was Tuesday.)

Otherwise, it was a very strong speech. He's always gets a bit breathless when he lays on the gravitas, but he effectively combined his usual quirky folksiness (saying "folks" a lot) with some powerful and compelling personal stories about himself and others, a Biden strength. But actually I think he was at his best when he was talking about President Obama, about Obama's courage, about his unflinching leadership in the face of crisis, about his ability to make the tough decisions, like the one to order the raid that killed bin Laden, in a calm and determined manner. If Michelle Obama talked about Barack's character in personal terms, Biden talked about it in professional terms: This is what it's like to be at his side in the White House. This is how he leads. And it was very powerful.

And then there was Barack Obama.

Expectations were enormously high, as they usually are for his major speeches. They were certainly higher than they were last week for Romney, who just had to present himself as something other than a robotic asshole to exceed them. For the president, he was following some outstanding speeches by some towering figures, notably Michelle Obama and Bill Clinton, and the up-and-coming Julian Castro. They all made the case for him, all extremely well, but with the economy still struggling, and with the polls showing a tight race and an approval rating that isn't great, he had to make the case himself, for himself, without seeming arrogant, without taking credit for too much, without promising too much, and by straddling that fine line between president and presidential candidate.

And he did that. Maybe not gloriously, maybe not with the soaring rhetoric of four years ago, maybe not by inspiring us and even moving us to tears the way he has done before, but by being presidential. Yes, David Gergen said it best: it was a mature speech, a presidential speech, and in that way it struck the right balance.

Sure, it was, to me, a bit SOTU-y at times. It started off a bit flat, picked up a bit, then fell back into a SOTU-style checklist without much in the way of detailed pledges, and perhaps it was all a bit off here and there. Richard and I were e-mailing throughout and that's the point he was making almost until the end. It just seemed... off. Just slightly, but somehow off. I agree, but I think it was because of the line he was trying to walk between being presidential and being the sort of uplifting candidate he was four years ago. But you could see he was almost there, almost there, almost there, and then he was, back to his usual form, with some truly stirring moments and a fantastic conclusion, uplifting and inspirational but tempered by the gravitas of being president.

Looking back, giving some grades to the major speakers, I'd say Deval Patrick got an A, Julian Castro got an A-, Michelle Obama got an A+, Sandra Fluke got an A (not least as a non-politico new to the national stage), Elizabeth Warren got a B, Bill Clinton got an A+ (with the highlight of the convention, just ahead of Michelle's speech), John Kerry got an A, Jill Biden got a B+, and Joe Biden got an A-.

And the president? Richard says B+. I'm going to be a bit more generous and say A-, mainly because he faced an enormous degree of difficulty and succeeded at an extraordinarily tough task.

President Obama did what he needed to do tonight. The party exceeded expecations this week, while he just met them. And perhaps there won't be much of a bounce in the polls (maybe we shouldn't even expect such things anymore). But with this speech tonight the president announced that he is ready to go hard the next two months defending his record and reaching out to voters with a message of hope bolstered by an understanding that the challenges America faces are not easy ones to ovecome, that it will take time to fix the enormous problems that persist.

America is on the right track because of what he has done as president, because of the leadership he has brought to the White House. As Biden said, Obama bin Laden is dead and General Motors is alive and well. There is more to be done, but a lot of good has been doing already. 

With the convention drawing to a close tonight, three incredible days, it is now time to move forward. Barack Obama and Joe Biden need our undivided support. There must be no turning back.

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