When Did the Democrats Get So Good at Political Stagecraft?

When did the Democrats become the new Republicans?

The opening night of the Democratic convention in Charlotte was a textbook case in message control and speeches that alternately tugged at the heartstrings and slammed the opposition for being out of touch with ordinary families. That sort of coordinated, regimented, always-on-target messaging used to be the bread and butter of the GOP, while the Democrats were the party that couldn’t get its  act together.

But Tuesday night for the Democrats was a well-orchestrated kick off that highlighted the mixed messages that came out of the Republican convention last week.

The Dems had two major themes last night: Their party (and Barack Obama in particular) understands the plight of American families. As Michelle Obama put it in a very effective pitch for staying in the White House, “As President, all you have to guide you are your values and your vision, and the life experiences that make you who you are.” She and her husband know what it’s like to grow up trying to improve your lot in life. Unspoken, but mightily implied, was the contrast to Mitt Romney—who tried to connect to the masses by talking about his mother’s run for U.S. Senate.

The First Lady capped an evening in which Democrats seemed to do the near impossible–at least for the short term: reawaken the party base and the rest of the country to the vision Obama presented of change in 2008. After a contentious and dispiriting three-and-a-half-year battle in Washington, many Democrats are disillusioned with Obama or, at least, disinclined to put the same energy into his reelection as they did into his campaign four years ago. But you’d be hard put to tell that after Tuesday night’s theatrics were done. The party wasn’t on the defensive about Obama’s achievements, but instead presented him as the only hope for middle America.

The result, claimed Politico, was a base “reacting with an energy that was often absent from the Republican conclave in Florida.”

Michelle was the Mom-in-Chief last night, leaving other speakers to take aim at the Republicans: With amazing consistency, a range of speakers hit the GOP for running on discredited policies from the Bush era that protect the rich.

In particular, they targeted Romney as being clueless: “Their theory has been tested. It failed. Our economy failed,” San Antonio Mayor Julian Castro told the delegates. “The middle class paid the price. Your family paid the price. Mitt Romney just doesn’t get it.”

Compare Castro’s address to Chris Christie’s hymn to his own greatness and you can see the difference between a party that is mobilized and confident and a party that doesn’t act like it believes it can win.

The other noteworthy thing about the Democratic Convention: The speakers weren’t their usual scared selves around social issues. The platform included strong language on marriage equality, but more to the point, several of the speakers spoke about the party conversion on the road to Charlotte, including Michelle Obama who put marriage equality in a line of American progress that began with the War of Independence: “If proud Americans can be who they are and boldly stand at the altar with who they love, then surely, surely, we can give everyone in this country a fair chance at that great American Dream.”

Clearly, the party sees its embrace of equality as a potential motivator for the young voters it needs to turn out on Election Day.

Now political conventions are largely informercials and probably have no lasting effect on the election. When was the last time you heard anyone say that his or her mind was made up because of a convention speech? But the conventions are windows into the psyches of the parties, and at least for the first night, the Democrats are looking pretty well adjusted compared to the competition.

Photo: Christopher Dilts/Obama for America

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