The current crop of Democrats give good speeches. That's one of the take-away lessons from this week's Democratic National Convention.
The Orator-in-Chief was only the capstone in a line-up of memorable addresses. Mayor Julian Castro's references to how his mother sacrificed for him and his brother. Michelle Obama's authentic passion and compassion. Bill Clinton's epic defense of Obama's first-term. Newer voices like Sandra Fluke and Zach Wahls filled out an emotional set of appeals. And Joe Biden revealed himself to be one of the most underutilized communicators in the administration — his speech was moving, engaging, a mix of hope and jabs, of anecdotes and exhortations that made many wonder why Biden '16 isn't murmured more often.
The Republicans would be smart not to attack the speeches on their quality, but to argue that good speeches aren't enough. Words don't equal action in general, and in over the past four years, the rhetorical promises of an inspiring young candidate and the visionary language of his Democratic platform have not transmogrified into equally inspired or visionary action. Compromises were made. Promises were left behind. Obstruction, lethargy, lobbying efforts, political realities and political favors have all contributed to a first term decidedly less transformational than the first campaign had suggested.
Republicans, though, may have a hard time making that argument since they played a significant, though by no means solitary, role in thwarting progress. While the Obama administration deserves its own criticism for broken campaign pledges, conservative policies and periodic timidity, the GOP is not a credible messenger. Their actions as the Party of No over this past cycle have sacrificed their ability to claim they are reasonable governing partners. And as their party has continued to let the vitriol of their radical extreme poison their national presence, very few of their party's leaders can win the trust of the American people — even when they do have a legitimate point to make.
So, you have one party that is nakedly in favor of policies that favor the rich over the poor, the powerful over the powerless, the "us" over the "others." Meanwhile, you have a second party that has often given too much to the rich, powerful and "us." But since the Democrats have given some to the poor, powerless and "others," and continue to speak passionately and compellingly about their vision for doing more, they stand in sharp contrast to their rivals. Since we like them, we're willing to listen; and the more we listen, the more (rightly or wrongly) we trust them.
Listening to the President Obama, Vice President Biden and the rest of Thursday night's line-up — and being willing to give them the benefit of the doubt — exposed an audience to an inspiring passion for a more progressive America. If you were open to hearing them out, even critics who have spent four years frustrated by the conservative strains in the White House may have ended up fired up and ready to go. Inside the Convention, the roar of approval was overwhelming. Across the nation, many felt the emotion and excitement that can result from an extremely well-scripted and well-staged production.
And a group of citizen-activists who are fired up and ready to go can be a powerful force. Many of the Tea Party groups who disrupted Town Halls and helped distort the healthcare debate were fired up. The Occupiers who took over Liberty Square and forced the country to talk less about budget deficits and more about economic justice deficits were ready to go. It has been fired-up gay activists who have relentlessly pushed our nation to embrace equality. It will be ready-to-go immigrant youth who, over time, do the same and lead our country to reinvigorating the American Dream.
If good speeches can fire up the passions of concerned citizens ready to make a difference, than while words may not equal action, they can lead to action. But for the progressive advocates, we have to remember that it's not only about electing a president. There will be plenty of speeches to keep us fired up through November; but after November is when the poetry turns to prose, the idealism become reality — and that's when we need to find the words that keep us ready to go: go to greater lengths to hold our elected officials accountable, go the extra mile in engaging in local fights and debates, go to rallies and town hall meetings even when there isn't an election day on the near horizon.
President Obama has shown that in campaign mode he can still fire us up, as he did four years ago. The real challenge will be how we stoke that fire even after we've run out of the fuel of election season. In his own skilled rhetorical way, Obama told us that this wasn't about him, but about all of us. Maybe we need to take that more seriously.