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Alpha Liberals help Democrats roar back to life

Far more than is ever acknowledged or even consciously understood, political campaigns are about symbolism, myth, and identity. We respond to them in ways and for reasons that we often do not know and cannot articulate, because we are responding to something in ourselves.

For 40 years, with the exception of the Clinton administration, brawny Republicans have kicked sand in the face of 90-lb Democratic weaklings. McGovern, Carter, Dukakis, Gore and even the war hero Kerry all fell prey in one way or another to the trope of effete, book-larnin’ sissies that America has never cottoned to. And the festering wound of the Vietnam War didn’t help a bit.

It took seven years, the most bone-headed war in history and the near annihilation of the world’s most powerful economic engine for Americans to finally regret electing a man they’d probably still like to watch the Superbowl with.

Such is the force of identity.

Americans like presidents in their own image. And they see themselves as tough, dominant sons-of-b#*ches. Smart is something they’ll put up with, if necessary, but it ain’t required and it sure better not be fancy.

But by the close of the Democratic National Convention on Thursday night, the Dems had wiped the floor with the Republicans in a display of raw power and confidence not witnessed in decades. It all began innocently enough, to the sentimental strains of piano and violin as a video tribute to Ted Kennedy began.

Just as the millions at home reached for their tissue, the plot turned abruptly gory, and viewers gaped in awe as the great lion himself first mauled and then mercilessly gutted a young Mitt Romney from stem to stern in their 1994 Senate electoral debate.

Next up came the formidable Amazonian Michelle Obama. With popularity ratings of 66 per cent, Mrs. Obama was noted by the entire Twitterverse to be more than a little presidential in her own right, and by the end of her speech pundits hailed her as the single most popular person in America.

Wednesday belonged to the Big Dog, who has not been wasting his time in the Big Doghouse. He dispatched the Republicans with the most devastating fact-based and fact-checked dissection in memory.

With perfect pitch and delivery, he laid out the decision to attack Osama Bin Laden in Pakistan, precisely as the president had predicted he would in his previous campaign, and took obvious pleasure in pointing out that Mitt Romney wouldn’t have bothered.

In point after point, William Jefferson Clinton laid out in a potent and full-throated tour-de-force the Liberal idea of government, and why that idea matters to America today. For American Liberalism in its 20th century manifestation is a triumph forged in the crucible of the Great Depression --  and it has never been more relevant than today. 

Banished from the convention was the liberal weakling: the ineffective do-gooder, the defensive explainer. In that place was a powerful advocate for good government as the defining feature of modern civilization.

Finally the president himself, Barack Obama, took the podium for a sober and understated address. In light of America’s still fragile economic recovery, there would be no soaring rhetoric and few fireworks. But throughout his address was the inflection of calm authority.

In the most tweeted line of either national convention by a margin of more than 2-1, Mr. Obama said: ”I’m no longer just a candidate, I’m the president.”

This measured approach to America’s presidency conveyed assurance, confidence and in its way, safety. For the seat of power is not, after all, about brittle saber-rattling, but calm courage and quiet strength.

Americans needed no reminding, but the Democrats did it anyway: that this young president has been tested as few in the nation’s history have before him. Perfection has eluded him, but few could claim they would have done better. 

The most striking aspect of the Democratic National Convention was its unapologetic show of power and strength. Its deep identification with those in employment insecurity stands in stark contrast to the Republican party, which can barely disguise its fear and suspicion of anyone unemployed or in need.

America is a nation still reeling, still uncertain, still more afraid than it wants to admit.

This Democratic confidence and pride even in the face of setbacks was profoundly reassuring. Look at the words and expressions used repeatedly by pundits: “muscular”,“powerful” and so on. Democratic strategist James Carville even allowed in a moment he’ll probably regret at home:

“This is not the mommy party on show here, this is the daddy party!” 

This identity diverges sharply from the party that has played defense for decades, which has been soft, and the prime advocate of the “nanny state”. With this convention, it ascended to a self-assurance and dominance that voters always reward at the polls. 

Obama’s quiet reminder that he is the president touches America’s most deep-seated wish in times of trouble and unacknowledged need for a powerful figure it can trust.

Mitt Romney, for all his qualities, still approaches voters on a cerebral level because he cannot connect with them emotionally. To the extent that the party machinery touches emotional levers of the electorate, it will work to heighten fears and uncertainty. But Romney does not have the answer to the questions raised by those fears. He looks like the boss most likely to fire you.

Enter Bill Clinton. By tacit national agreement, he has more than paid the price for the fatal character flaw that marred his presidency, and on Wednesday he took his place in history as the Democrats’ great post-Kennedy president. He is unmatched in his ability to connect with voters, to tell them hard truths, and to still offer hope-- which people in need will do almost anything for. He will be there in Ohio, Florida and all the battleground states, taking the mickey out of Mitt Romney through to November.

Finally, for the first time in a very long time, possibly not since Bobby Kennedy himself, the Democratic party has dared to strike the chord, not of America’s ambitions, but of its highest aspirations as the source of its exceptionalism.

Perhaps, after all that it has been through, America is at last remembering the nation it first set out to be.





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