CHARLOTTE, N.C.—Campaign slogans have been on a downward arc since the days of “Tippecanoe and Tyler Too” or even “Give ’em hell, Harry.” But the opening night of the 2012 Democratic convention carried them to a new level of banality. Maryland Gov. Martin O’Malley kicked off the broadcast networks’ one-hour coverage with the dumbed-down refrain “Forward. Not Back.” (Was “Sideways” an option?) Still, nothing matched the historical amnesia of Democrats chanting “Four More Years,” oblivious to its intimate association with Richard Nixon’s 1972 Watergate campaign. (How about “One More Term” or something entirely divorced from Tricky Dick?)
Convention oratory is often inadvertently revealing. Not just the morning-after highlights like Michelle Obama’s star turn, but also the pedestrian patter and tired tropes of speakers who dreamed of being Pericles but ended up as pablum. The values of a political party are entwined with its metaphors. The Republicans in Tampa, with their constant cries of “We Built That,” confidently assumed that every red-blooded American wants to start a small business. Democrats, in contrast, invariably place personal fulfillment above the crass demands of commerce.
Michelle Obama captured this Democratic mindset when she assured the nation that her husband had not been changed by power and fame: “He’s the same man who started his career by turning down high-paying jobs … because, for Barack, success isn’t about how much money you make, it’s about the difference you make in people’s lives.” It is almost unfathomable to imagine a Republican orator praising the decision to turn down a high-paying job unless, perhaps, it was to serve in the military.
Republicans worship self-reliance, Democrats cherish interdependence. In his keynote address to the 1984 Democratic convention in San Francisco, Mario Cuomo offered an eloquent contrast between the two parties that easily could have been repeated Tuesday night in Charlotte: “The Republicans believe the wagon train will not make it to the frontier unless some of our old, some of our young, and some of our weak are left behind by the side of the trail. We Democrats believe that we can make it all the way with the whole family intact.”
No one in Charlotte Tuesday night conjured up imagery that powerful. But you could hear a pallid echo of Cuomo when this year’s keynoter, Julian Castro, who was in elementary school in 1984, said: “In Texas, we believe in the rugged individual. … But we also recognize that there are some things we can’t do alone. We have to come together and invest in opportunity today for prosperity tomorrow.” Deval Patrick, who succeeded Mitt Romney as governor of Massachusetts, hit a similar note when he declared, “We believe that in times like these we should turn to each other, not on each other.”
When it comes to speechmaking, the Democrats have long had a favorite word: “fight” and its variants as both a verb and a noun. Democrats are always “fighting for the middle class” and thundering, “It’s your fight, too.” The former White House chief of staff and current Chicago Mayor Rahm Emanuel, a politician devoted to poll-tested rhetoric, followed this familiar playbook as he recounted how much Obama is moved and motivated by the letters from voters he reads daily. “I cannot tell you how many times,” Emanuel said, “… the president would walk to his desk, take one of their letters, read it to all of us, and say, ‘This is what we’re fighting for.’”
Part of the fighting imagery relates to a sometimes transparent effort by Democrats to reconnect with the party’s blue-collar heritage. Speakers at Tuesday’s convention like O’Malley and former Ohio Gov. Ted Strickland exuded high-decibel heat as if they were talking to an old-fashioned union rally. For them, Romney’s wealth and stealth tax returns represent a perfect foil. O’Malley declared, “Swiss bank accounts never created American jobs.” And Strickland memorably gibed: “Mitt Romney has so little economic patriotism that even his money needs a passport. It summers on the beaches of the Cayman Islands and winters on the slopes of the Swiss Alps.”
With both parties heavily dependent on wealthy financial backers, it is misleading to overstate the political class struggle. But built into the Democrats’ DNA is the belief that they are (cliché alert) fighting for the little guy, whether he knows it or not. That’s why Castro in his keynote hit a pitch-perfect note when he recalled Romney’s suggestion that students should start their own businesses by borrowing the initial capital from their parents. “Gee, why didn’t I think of that?” Castro asked with mockery in his voice. Castro’s point—and this was a legitimate political hit—was that Romney in assuming that every family has extra money to lend their children “just has no idea how good he’s had it.”
Ann Romney, in her own first-lady audition in Tampa, conjured the early days of her marriage to Mitt when “our desk was a door propped up on sawhorses” and “our dining room table was a fold-down ironing board in the kitchen.” But she couldn’t compete with Michelle Obama in the hard-times bake-off. The first lady recalled that when she met the future president, “He was a guy whose proudest possession was a coffee table he’d found in a Dumpster.”
That’s the real rhetorical difference between the two parties. Republicans don’t brag about Dumpster diving.