Tuesday, September 4, 2012

Charlotte, Day 1: Democrats bring their A-plus game

HAVING THE last word in a debate is a fundamentally advantageous position. It means being able to contain the totality of an opponent’s argument inside your own, and recognizing that yours may well be the position that best resonates — if for no other reason than the fact that there’s nothing to follow it.

Add to that last-word advantage the additional benefit of sourcing your argument not just with policy but also with actual examples of how that policy applies in the real world. Now you begin to see the leverage that the Democrats commanded on Tuesday, the first day of the 2012 Democratic National Convention — and, in some ways, the first day of a new, more pugnacious and more personalized Democratic Party.

In a first convention day of note-perfect choreography and the rebellious exuberance the Democrats have all but trademarked, the Democratic Party has sharpened its sense of mission in the stretch run to the Nov. 6 election. The late House Speaker Tip O’Neill once observed: “All politics is local.” True enough, but last night at the Time Warner Cable Arena, a parade of speakers drove home another point, one in full effect for this campaign season: All politics is personal, too.

A young Latino man with a hardscrabble family background speaks to the audience of his climb to become the mayor of San Antonio. A former tire company worker recounts her struggle for equal pay for equal work. A young mother from Arizona documents the uncertainty of paying for health-care costs for her infant daughter with a heart defect.

Their stories, and how policies from the Obama administration helped them or people like them, formed the rhetorical narrative of the convention’s first spirited, emotionally galvanizing day. If the rest of the convention can match this energy — and with Bill Clinton waiting in the wings and President Obama set to speak on Thursday, there’s no reason on earth to think it won’t — it may show that the so-called enthusiasm gap favoring Republicans over Democrats doesn’t even exist.

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Stacey Lihn brought home just how personal politics can be, specifically the personal side of the health-care debate. The Arizona resident, wife and mother told the convention audience the affecting story of her daughter Zoe’s heart defect, a pre-existing health condition that required two major surgeries already, with another one possible a year or so from now.

For Lihn, the Affordable Care Act was a godsend. “Governor Romney says people like me were the most excited about President Obama then day we voted for him,” she said. “But that’s not true. Not even close. For me, there was the day the Affordable Care Act 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.”

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LATER, on MSNBC, the Rev. Al Sharpton made a serious point that reflects the power of the human dimension of public policy. Thanks to Lihn’s moving story, Obamacare has at last found an accessible identity. Thanks to the Lihn family, the impersonality of a health-care law, the vastness of that legislation now concretized as federal statute can be easily distilled down to the irrefutable human face of a child with a heart defect — the direct beneficiary of that which the Affordable Care Act conveys to the American people.

“Once you do that,” Sharpton said, “it is very difficult for [Republicans] to put a face on their policy. What is the face you’re gonna put on a policy? You’ve got them with policy and this other side with real, living people.”

In recent years a party long on wonk and short on populist execution, the Democratic Party has found the handle for distilling its message — by making politics personal. There may be no better living evangelist for that idea than William Jefferson Clinton, the still-popular 42nd president of the United States, who takes the stage in Charlotte tomorrow night.

He’ll certainly pack the house. Everyone in the house would be advised to pack a lunch.

Image credit: Obama 2012 logo: From the Obama campaign. Stacey Lihn: DNC pool feed.

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