For most of my political life, I have watched Democrats play defense on everything from family values to foreign policy. Republicans hit hard--sometimes above the belt, but more often, resorting to the vilest appeals to racism, classism, bigotry and greed. I've seen Republicans physically threaten election officials to stop counting votes. I've seen them wear Purple Heart Bandaids to mock a decorated war veteran at a time our nation was at war. I've seen them roar their approval as their media mouthpieces abused a young woman for three days for daring to express her opinions on birth control.
The usual response by Democrats has been to crouch into defensive posture. To react with dizzied shock at the insanity. To try to see the other side's perspective and retune the message even when that message is an attack on the most successful social programs in the history of the world. Or, ridiculously, our politicians robotically repeat lame talking points written by some moronic intern. (In truth, I saw Debbie Wasserman Schultz do this in response to questions about the party platform changes the other day and I cringed the whole time, wondering if that was going to set the tone for the convention she helped engineer.)
This is the dynamic year after year--especially when we are the challengers--such that the narrative seemed set in stone. Democrats are the peacenik party of weak-willed do-gooders.
Not this time.
What I saw in this convention was a Democratic Party that drew a line in the sand. This is a party that was confident about its values, eager to articulate and support them, optimistic about the future, indignant about the attacks from the other side, and aggressive about preserving its legacy.
Sure, some speeches were strident or tone-deaf. Some speakers were trying too hard. But each one went up and spoke to a different part of the electorate, landing punches in different places, building and building to an astonishingly strong stand. They ticked off every box, one by one. They told the voters what the party is about and why. They told the voters what they would not back down on.
For once, they seemed to be unapologetically telling voters to take it or leave it.
And I think it was devastatingly effective.
There's a good reason conservative commentators thought the whole thing was over the night Bill Clinton spoke. It's because he systematically addressed and dismantled every single argument the other side has ever offered for their candidates. Let us make no bones about it: he crushed the other side's philosophy. He held up the GOP's worst ideas to the light and showed them as empty, cynical, hard-hearted, ignorance. And he did it without lecturing anybody. He did it with a playful smile that said, "Come on, ya'll. I'm not telling you anything you don't already know in your heart of hearts."
If Mitt Romney is as bright as his supporters think he is, he felt every word of that speech like an arrow to the heart.
Clinton left Fortress GOP in flaming ruins and all that was left for the final night of speeches was to invite voters back into the fold. And yet, in a breathtaking move, John Kerry then salted the fields for good measure.
In my observation, our party can be uncomfortable with power. Our ideology is less hierarchical. There's a certain worship of independence over authority. We tend to value respect of individual voices over organization and coordination. And that's not always a bad thing. But it can be a problematic when it allows a far more damaging ideology to triumph at the polls because we cannot offer genuine leadership to the voters.
For a long time now, supporters of President Obama have been critical of his ineffectiveness at reaching bipartisan compromise and his willingness to pursue it in the face of obvious disdain. There is frustration with his apparent unwillingness to dictate terms even when he has the support of the people behind him. Maybe this is a president who is far better at fighting for democratic values when he's campaigning than when he's governing.
But this convention showed that Joe Biden may be right when he says Obama has a steely core. Because insofar as this convention was a reflection of its standard bearer, it was a display that should strike fear into the hearts of the GOP.
And I can't remember the last time I could say that.