CHARLOTTE — Democrats have adopted the one-word slogan “Forward” to describe President Obama’s re-election campaign and the party’s philosophy in general. All the speakers on the convention’s first night made some sort of reference to it. But for a party that is so intently focused on the future, the biggest, loudest, and most emotional moment of the night came not when the delegates welcomed one promising face of the future (keynote speaker Julian Castro), nor the face of the present (First Lady Michelle Obama), but instead when the crowd watched a video tribute to the late Sen. Edward Kennedy, who would have run for president 40 years ago, in 1972, had he not suffered the political effects of fleeing and failing to report a fatal auto accident, and did run for the White House 32 years ago, in 1980, when he unsuccessfully challenged a sitting Democratic president.
The Kennedy tribute had an impact not only because the late Massachusetts lawmaker and his family remain Democratic gods. It was also perfectly pitched for the current campaign because the video producers threw in a few clips from 1994, when Kennedy ran against one Mitt Romney and hit his Republican challenger with one putdown after another in their debate. With each Kennedy zinger, the crowd roared. Some observers thought the inclusion of the Romney segment injected an overly partisan note in a nostalgic tribute, but it’s hard to imagine that the old partisan warrior Kennedy would have objected to his memorial video doubling as an attack ad.
Later in the seven-minute presentation, when Kennedy spoke passionately on behalf of universal health care, the crowd roared again. Very loudly. No living speaker could top that, not even the First Lady.
Democrats like to joke that they belong to no organized political party, but there were times in the Time Warner Cable Arena when party regulars were not only not disorganized but instead displayed the single-minded discipline of the Beijing Olympics opening ceremony.
When Maryland Gov. Martin O’Malley delivered a speech which repeated the phrase that President Obama will take the nation “forward, not back,” DNC staffers scurried through the aisles distributing zillions of signs that said FORWARD and NOT BACK. Democrats dutifully waved along in time with O’Malley.
When the First Lady was introduced, the same staffers zipped back down the aisles with WE LOVE MICHELLE signs for everyone except convention-goers seated directly in front of the television cameras. On signal, they waved and waved and waved. A well-organized display.
Mrs. Obama received plaudits for a skillfully delivered speech. Like other speakers, she emphasized hers, and her husband’s, humble origins. “Our families weren’t asking for much,” she said. “They didn’t begrudge anyone else’s success or care that others had much more than they did; in fact, they admired it.” That was a direct response to the charge, heard often at last week’s Republican convention in Tampa, that Obama and Democrats stoke class envy and resentment. No, we don’t, said Mrs. Obama; we just want everyone to share in the good fortune.
After a number of earlier speakers pointed out that Mitt Romney is rich, Mrs. Obama pointedly said she and her husband have never much cared about money. “For Barack, success isn’t about how much money you make, it’s about the difference you make in people’s lives,” she said. Mrs. Obama mentioned that her husband turned down high-paying jobs to work in order to help people in struggling neighborhoods, and she’s often spoken in the past of her own choice to leave “corporate America” for more satisfying, if lesser paying, jobs helping others. At the podium Tuesday night, she didn’t mention that helping others has paid pretty well, at least for her. In 2004, just before her husband was elected to the Senate, she made $121,910 from her position as an executive at the University of Chicago Hospital. In 2005, almost immediately after Barack Obama took office, her pay jumped to $316,962 — a very nice raise, even during the Bush years, when the economy was doing far better than today. Helping others was actually a pretty good living for Mrs. Obama.
But that wasn’t a topic for the opening night of the Democratic convention. The evening was a hodgepodge: a little bit on this issue or that, focusing particularly on abortion; a helping of red meat for the base (delivered most effectively by Ohio Gov. Ted Strickland); a rousing tribute to Kennedy; an immigrant success story (Castro); and the First Lady. Was there a theme to it all? Not really. On their first night, Democrats were mainly celebrating themselves.