Democratic convention has new tone

September 6, 2012

Legions of sidewalk vendors were doing a brisk business in Barack Obama-themed souvenirs. Around the convention hall, there was still the occasional echo of that familiar call-and-response: “Fired up!” “Ready to go!”

But in most other respects, just about everything about the 2012 Democratic National Convention that ended Thursday screamed that it’s not 2008 anymore.

If the 2008 campaign was one of aspiration and idealism, this year is about survival, and it showed in how the convention played out.

There was still plenty of intensity — both in the speeches and in the vibe among the convention-goers. But this convention was a grimmer, edgier affair than the one four years ago.

Speakers attacked and ridiculed GOP nominee Mitt Romney with a vigor they did not show against John McCain in 2008. They aggressively embraced liberal positions on social issues such as abortion and gay marriage. They presented a more united front than they had four years ago, when they were still trying to heal from a divisive presidential primary. And they sounded far less confident that they would prevail in November.

Which party leaders say is not necessarily a bad thing.

When Democrats descended on Denver four years ago to nominate the first African American standard-bearer of a major political party, “there was this tremendous sense of destiny,” said Colorado Gov. John Hickenlooper, who was then serving as mayor of the convention city. “But the energy was a little frenetic, and it was unfocused in a way. This time, it is much more focused, and there is much more energy being put to productive use.”

That Denver convention remains a defining moment for many Democrats.

Wellyn Collins, a retired social studies teacher from Cincinnati, traveled here hoping to re-create it, though she ended up being shut out of the convention when the final night’s speeches were moved inside for weather.

“It was electrifying, being with people who think like me, who were acting like me, just hearing him speak,” she said. “Hearing our first African American president speak and talk about the subjects that I was interested in and what I wanted for my children and grandchildren.”

The political environment that surrounds the convention is very different this time.

Former president Bill Clinton, for instance, had used his address in Denver to reassure Americans that a first-term senator was prepared to step into the role of commander in chief and to bridge the divide that still existed between Hillary Rodham Clinton’s supporters and those of the nominee who had defeated her.

On Wednesday night, the former president devoted his nearly hour-long speech to building a defense and explanation of Obama’s record, arguing that no one — not even Clinton himself — could have managed better during difficult economic times.

But voters are also looking for the path forward.

Tom Perriello attended the Denver convention as a U.S. House candidate from Virginia, and the arc of his career since then describes his party’s fortunes. He won his 2008 election in what turned out to be the closest House race in the country but lost his seat in the Republican midterm landslide two years later. He now heads the political arm of the Center for American Progress, a Democratic-aligned think tank.

“For three years, we’ve been very much in survival mode,” Perriello said. “This is an opportunity to think again of getting beyond the crisis. What is it we could accomplish?”

There were practical imperatives that affected the tenor of the convention as well.

In 2008, Democrats held their convention before the Republicans did. This time, it came on the heels of the GOP gathering in Tampa. What the Republicans hammered more than any other theme was the idea that Obama lacks an understanding of or an affinity for business.

That timing, some Democrats argued, required their party to go on a more aggressive footing.

Both parties also felt the need to maximize the impact of their message at a time when the conventions are receiving a smaller amount of television coverage — and viewership. That is why so many of the speeches featured the same slogans.

“The networks have cut these things down to one hour of prime time,” said San Antonio Mayor Julian Castro, who delivered the Democrats’ keynote address. “In both conventions, the umbrella message of the campaigns is going to take up some part of everybody’s speech. That’s just the reality. The landscape in terms of speech-making for these conventions has changed.”

Castro’s speech was well received and drew comparisons to one at the 2004 convention that turned an Illinois state senator into a political star and launched him on his way to the White House four years later.

Castro’s, however, had a much sharper edge — intentionally so, he explained at a breakfast with journalists from The Washington Post and Bloomberg News.

“What you saw in my speech versus President Obama’s speech was that the beginning and the end were sort of these aspirational, story-telling, narrative parts of the speech [that] summoned the values that we all share, the future we all want and so forth,” Castro said. “The middle of the speech was more the argument behind it.”

Ed O’Keefe contributed to this report.

Karen Tumulty is a national political correspondent for The Washington Post, where she received the 2013 Toner Prize for Excellence in Political Reporting.
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