As I wrote yesterday, the Democrats put on a great show for the opening night of their Convention. Did Wednesday’s proceedings reach the same heights? Well, if you are asking about the entire six-hour lineup, then the answer is no—despite a scattering of bright spots, the speeches as a whole were less coherent and mostly forgettable. But if you are asking instead about the primetime heart of the program, then my answer is a resounding yes.
Elizabeth Warren’s remarks were impassioned, forceful, effective, and unabashedly liberal. I don’t mean liberal in the cultural (or counter-cultural) sense that often attaches to the word these days. I mean liberal in an older sense of the word. Consider this extended excerpt (it’s long, but worth a read):
When I refer to high finance I am not talking about all great bankers, or all great corporation executives, or all multi-millionaires … I do not even imply that the majority of them are bad citizens. The opposite is true … When I speak of high finance as a harmful factor in recent years, I am speaking about a minority which includes the type of individual who speculates with other people’s money—and also the type of individual who says that popular government cannot be trusted and, therefore, that the control of business of all kinds and, indeed, of Government itself should be vested in the hands of … individuals controlling the purse strings of the Nation.
High finance of this type … wanted [prosperity] to trickle down from the top, through the intricate arrangements which they controlled and by which they were able to levy tribute on every business in the land … They did not want Government supervision over financial markets through which they manipulated their monopolies with other people’s money.
And in the face of their demands that Government do nothing that they called “unsound,” the Government, hypnotized by its indebtedness to them, stood by and let the depression drive industry and business toward bankruptcy … [They] lured the unsuspecting and the unwary to financial destruction. [They] built up intricate corporate structures, piling bond upon stock and stock upon bond—huge monopolies which were stifling independent business and private enterprise.
There was no power under Heaven that could protect the people against that sort of thing except a people’s Government at Washington. All that this Administration has done, all that it proposes to do is to use every power and authority of the Federal Government to protect the commerce of America from the selfish forces which ruined it.
Always, month in and month out, during these three and a half years, your Government has had but one sign on its desk—“Seek only the greater good of the greater number of Americans.” And in appraising the record, remember … this Administration was called upon to act after a previous Administration and all the combined forces of private enterprise had failed.
We found when we came to Washington … that the business and industry of the Nation were like a train which had gone off the rails into a ditch. Our first job was to get it out of the ditch and start it up the track again as far as the repair shops. Our next job was to make repairs—on the broken axles which had gotten it off the road, on the engine which had been worn down by gross misuse.
The train of American business is moving ahead. But you people know what I mean when I say it is clear that if the train is to run smoothly again the cars will have to be loaded more evenly. We have made a definite start in getting the train loaded more evenly, in order that axles may not break again …
Our job was to preserve the American ideal of economic as well as political democracy, against the abuse of concentration of economic power that had been insidiously growing up among us … This concentration of wealth and power has been built upon other people’s money, other people’s business, other people’s labor … It has been a menace to the social system as well as to the economic system which we call American democracy.
There is no excuse for it in the cold terms of industrial efficiency. There is no excuse for it from the point of view of the average investor. There is no excuse for it from the point of view of the independent business man.
I believe, I have always believed, and I will always believe in private enterprise as the backbone of economic well-being in the United States. But I know, and you know, and every independent business man who has had to struggle against the competition of monopolies knows, that this concentration of economic power in all-embracing corporations does not represent private enterprise as we Americans cherish it and propose to foster it. On the contrary, it represents private enterprise which has become a kind of private government, a power unto itself—a regimentation of other people’s money and other people’s lives …
Republican leaders, many of whom are part of this concentrated power, are [spreading] fear among the American people … You have heard about how antagonistic to business this Administration is supposed to be. You have heard all about the dangers which the business of America is supposed to be facing if this Administration continues.
The answer to that is the record of what we have done. It was this Administration which saved the system of private profit and free enterprise after it had been dragged to the brink of ruin by these same leaders who now try to scare you.
The struggle against private monopoly is a struggle for, and not against, American business. It is a struggle to preserve individual enterprise and economic freedom.
I believe in individualism. I believe in it in the arts, the sciences and professions. I believe in it in business. I believe in individualism in all of these things—up to the point where the individualist starts to operate at the expense of society … The people of America have no quarrel with business. They insist only that the power of concentrated wealth shall not be abused.
Powerful stuff from Elizabeth Warren.
Except that wasn’t Elizabeth Warren. That was Franklin Roosevelt, campaigning for reelection in 1936. But, boy, the echoes are pretty eerie, aren’t they?
At its core, Elizabeth Warren’s speech confronted the “malefactors of great wealth”—the memorable phrase coined by Teddy Roosevelt and then used more fully by his cousin. She simply updated her theme for the era of Super-PACs and derivatives. And it is more-than-a-little unsettling that a century after the Progressive Era and three generations after the New Deal, a speech like that is relevant again.
Just about everyone to the left of Glenn Beck regards Roosevelt as a hero these days, so next time you hear a Tea Party activist denounce President Obama as a socialist or call him un-American, go back and reread that Roosevelt speech (or a hundred others like it) to be reminded of the richness and complexity of the true American tradition.
But as Warren herself put it, she was only the warm-up act.
Before getting into the night’s headliner, let me make an honest admission. When it comes to judging Bill Clinton, I am not to be trusted. He and I have a little history that pushes me into a category way beyond mere bias.
Back in 1992, when Clinton was first campaigning for the Presidency, I was a grad student up in Boston studying political science and public policy. The poli-sci literature and textbooks those days were full of hand-wringing about the Democrats’ collapse as a national party. Put aside the temporary distorting effect of Watergate, these analysts argued, and Democrats hadn’t been competitive at the Presidential level for close to 30 years; Democrats, they said, were increasingly captive to a vocal fringe, able to appeal only to narrow interest groups, and disconnected from the values and interests of the broad middle class.
At the time, I literally had no memory of a Democrat winning the White House (I was only six years old when Jimmy Carter beat Gerald Ford). So, for me, the prospect of a Democratic victory was like a fantasy about winning the lottery — sure, it’s technically possible, but it ain’t gonna happen.
And then along came Bill Clinton. He modernized a progressive vision of government. He spoke in terms that resonated with “the forgotten middle class.” He had the political chops to go toe-to-toe with what had been a far superior GOP political machine. And—by God—he won the election. I volunteered for Clinton’s primary campaign just over the border in New Hampshire, where he came in a close second, but still earned the moniker “comeback kid.” And from the moment Ohio put Clinton over the top just before 11 p.m. on Nov. 4, 1992, and in every moment since, Bill Clinton has always been for me the man who led our party out of the wilderness, and then put our entire nation on a better path forward. I have never stopped feeling loyal to him as a result.
So, yeah, when it comes to judging Bill Clinton, I am not to be trusted. But in the case of his speech last night, I feel a little more confident in my assessment, because my reaction seems to be everybody else’s reaction, too. He was spectacular. And he was spectacular in a way that is uniquely Clintonian.
What do I mean by that? Think about the other high point of the convention (so far): Michelle Obama’s tour de force on Tuesday. The first lady was perfect in the classic sense: every word, expression, and intonation just right. Clinton … not so much. He went off-script here, there and everywhere, got lost a couple of times in his syntax or his statistics, and plowed right past his scheduled wrap-up. And, yet (and maybe this is a metaphor for Clinton’s whole political life), he somehow assembled this messy batch of imperfections into an address that WAS perfect.
A clear and ringing affirmation of President Obama’s record in the face of overwhelming challenges. The best statement I’ve ever heard about the difference between honorable disagreement and partisan obstructionism. And a brutally effective takedown of the Republican campaign and platform, in terms that managed to be at once chock-a-block with factual detail and yet fully engaging and understandable.
And he was loving every minute of it—loose and funny—with his references to the GOP’s “alternative universe” and defiance of “arithmetic,” and his faux-admiration for Paul Ryan’s “brass” in attacking Obama’s Medicare record.
The crowd in the arena was over the moon. Smiling, cheering, up on our feet, shaking our heads in disbelief as one of the great practitioners of the political arts performed for our edification and entertainment.
Convention speeches rarely have staying power. The cheering ends. The campaign moves on. But for a few wonderful minutes, while Bill Clinton was speaking in Charlotte, it was as though all the sophistry and distortions of the 30-second ads, all the misleading claims and counterclaims, all the wildly inaccurate depictions of history and wildly off-base predictions of the future, all the fuzzy facts and crackpot conspiracy theories, were just swept away, and the simple truths of this moment in American democracy and of our choice in this election were laid bare for all to see and understand. And maybe, just maybe, those words will outlast the normal half-life of a speech and continue to shape the character of this campaign for the better.
Alright, I am supposed to be using these posts to report on my own activities, so I’d better bring my Clinton idolatry to a close and say at least a few words about my day. Since this post is already getting overlong, I’ll be brief.
First, I attended a Democratic Municipal Officials (DMO) reception at a local restaurant. In contrast to the U.S. Conference of Mayors gathering the day before, this event did include lots of folks whose experience was relevant and relatable to New Rochelle, and I really enjoyed speaking with colleagues from every corner of the country, most of whom represented smaller and medium-sized communities. It was very interesting to share notes about both common and disparate challenges, and I always pick up food for thought in these discussions. I have to thank Chuck Lesnick, the Yonkers City Council President and New York State DMO President, for encouraging me to join the organization and for introducing me to lots of folks at the reception. And I was also very glad to meet in person the DMO’s national head, Eric Garcetti, who is a Los Angeles City Council Member and a front-runner in the race for Mayor of LA. Eric is a much bigger political fish than I am, and, ordinarily, we wouldn’t have much connection, but over the years, through mutual good friends, we’ve actually exchanged emails a few times about, of all strange things, the game Boggle. It’s a long story, not worth getting into … suffice it to say that, if I could vote in LA, I would vote Garcetti.
Second, at the convention arena, I spent a fair amount of time just a seat away from Bill Thompson, the former New York City Comptroller and most recent Democratic candidate for NYC Mayor. It can be a little dangerous to judge someone from a single night of conversation, but I really liked him. He had a wry sense of humor, a keen eye for the absurdities of politics, and an air of personal modesty that I found really appealing. There was a very minor hubbub in the New York delegation as some people—mainly State legislators—jockeyed for a position close to the state sign. It was ridiculous—I mean, really, who cares?! Thompson, to his credit, wanted no part of it; he just sat back and took in the show with us lesser attendees, which gets him a gold star in my ledger. So, even though it’s a pretty lousy picture of me, my photo for today’s post features Bill Thompson on the left, Symra Brandon (the Yonkers Democratic Party Chair) in the center, and yours truly on the right.
Lastly, I am told that I was shown briefly on C-SPAN, cheering as Sen. Kirstin Gillibrand was introduced. I cannot confirm this rumor, but if true, this might vault me into a category of television stardom previously reserved only for participants in our local cablecast of Council meetings. If the tens of—millions (?), thousands (?)—well, just plain tens of people who were watching would like my autograph, I will gladly provide it.
This morning, Governor Cuomo will address the New York delegation, and I expect he WILL hold our attention. Then, tonight, we hear from the president.