You can read the big prime-time speeches from San Antonio Mayor Julian Castro and First Lady Michelle Obama. They tell a coherent story of success borne out of struggle, the importance of government investment in education and opportunity as a bridge from the bottom, and the need to give everyone those same chances. They were well-told tales.
Virtually all of the speeches last night, from Ted Strickland to Deval Patrick to even Martin O’Malley, were well-told. For all the hype about Republicans and their “deep bench,” I think it’s clear that Democrats have better speakers and better speechwriters at this stage of the game. It’s also clear that Democratic observers immediately want to make anyone who tells them inspiring words President. I think we’ve learned by now that a speech is not reliable.
But what a speech can tell you is where the party is headed, so here are my impressions. The Democrats have retreated to a smooth-sounding but basically cautious and staid centrism on economic matters. With the exception of Strickland and his appeal to economic patriotism, which isn’t actually reflected in the current Adminstration’s policies, the Democrats have put together a very safe argument about equality of opportunities (not equality of outcomes, we mustn’t have that) and, well, balanced deficit reduction. They lean on taxing the rich and having everyone “pay their fair share,” but the undercurrent is that deficits are a big problem that must be solved.
The links to the current mass unemployment crisis and the waste of human capital are vague and unclear (I wouldn’t be surprised if Republicans criticized the DNC for being “out of touch”). Democrats were happy to tout the auto industry rescue as an investment that paid off, but the one policy that never got mentioned explicitly, or really even implicitly, was the Recovery Act. Democrats did engage in a very forceful and often effective embrace of Obamacare, telling stories of people who would have nowhere to turn without the law. It was the closest thing to a liberal economic policy theme of the night, and yet we know that the Affordable Care Act is a Republican version of a liberal policy. That doesn’t mean it won’t help people who may otherwise not get help, and Democrats are right to recognize that rather than run from it. But this still plants them squarely in the middle in what we keep hearing is a base election. On issues of war and peace, I really don’t even want to get started. Not one thing said on that stage yesterday on that topic couldn’t have been said at a Republican National Convention.
So where does that leave the party in trying to fire up its base? The same way Republicans fire up their base, by appealing to identity and socio-cultural policy. Where the convention’s first night truly and unabashedly veered to the left is on issues like the right to choose the legal medical procedure of abortion, or comprehensive immigration reform and the DREAM Act, or marriage equality. With nothing left to truly differentiate from the other party – with no allowable third rails to touch on the economic front that won’t raise the ire of big money donors – Democrats have become a liberal social policy party, and they wear that on their sleeve, appealing very directly to women, Hispanics, the LGBT community and African-Americans, often entirely through the identity of the speakers and the connection between the speakers and the audience.
The most incredible speech in this regard came from Nancy Keenan of NARAL, which sounded most like the speech Ted Kennedy gave about Robert Bork credited with stopping him from ascending to the Supreme Court. Heck, Teddy himself made an appearance in a tribute video, destroying Mitt Romney in a debate.
For all the head-shaking and tut-tutting at the dynamic of “What’s the Matter With Kansas,” and the lack of understanding for how “emotional” issues can stand in above economic ones, we’re seeing the exact same dynamic play out on the Democratic side. After years in the wilderness, the social liberals are at the forefront. And the difference is that the activists behind those policies – LGBT activists, DREAMers, to use a couple examples – made sustained arguments with the public, and Democrats finally recognized the value of getting on their side. Plus, these are the tribal issues that differentiate the parties, the fault lines in American politics. Democrats are the melting pot party, and they need to respect and lift up those issues critical to the disparate elements of their base.
I find nothing in this to argue with, necessarily. In the absence of a New Deal coalition, it’s what the party has left to use. In a bad economy, it’s what progress they have to tout. It also merges with a class argument at times, and a meritocratic argument about how government can provide a ladder into the middle class. But it’s an identity-based argument at the core.