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Politics / ON THE TRAIL

The Liberals' Moment

Unlike past conventions, progressives have been front and center in Charlotte

photo of Reid Wilson
September 6, 2012

A funny thing happened in Charlotte this week: The Democratic Party, the party that has spent every day since Ronald Reagan became president running from the word "liberal" and its politically losing connotations, has — finally — firmly embraced its left flank.

From Tuesday night's focus on social issues such as abortion and gay marriage to Wednesday's focus on the economic contrast between the two parties — critics would dub it class warfare — Democrats have offered arguably the most liberal convention lineup since 1972. Democrats are showcasing rising stars of the left: Massachusetts Senate candidate Elizabeth Warren, Maryland Gov. Martin O'Malley, and a host of liberal members of the Congressional Black Caucus and Congressional Hispanic Caucus.

The fact that Democrats have decided to showcase their left flank stands at odds with recent history, when the party has highlighted centrists with close ties to the business community, conservatives from the South, or rebranded New Democrats. In previous years, the party would schedule all its liberal lions on one night, or before the prime-time cameras tuned in. In 2008, Ted Kennedy and Nancy Pelosi shared the prime-time hour on the first day of the convention. The other three nights were dedicated to promoting the Obama-Biden ticket.


Even San Antonio Mayor Julian Castro's keynote speech signaled a departure from conventions past. Keynoters have typically hailed from the moderate side of the party, such as Sen. Evan Bayh in 1996, Rep. Harold Ford in 2000, and Sen. Mark Warner in 2008. (Even Barack Obama's 2004 keynote speech avoided paeans to the liberal agenda). Castro's address was full of the economic populism that Bayh, Ford, Warner, and even Obama skipped.

"If we want to win elections in November and keep our country moving forward, if we want to earn the privilege to lead, it's time for Democrats to stiffen our backbone and stand up for what we believe," Massachusetts Gov. Deval Patrick said on Tuesday.

The spine-stiffening has come largely because it fits with the Obama campaign's central strategy. That strategy assumes a smaller universe of persuadable voters; they see the election as an exercise in base mobilization, rather than persuasion. Fewer Americans are tuning in to conventions this year, meaning the audience is more likely to be those already predisposed toward voting for the party they're watching. And while they say publicly they're not worried about an enthusiasm gap, polls show the Democratic base is in fact less excited to turn out and vote than Republicans.

That enthusiasm gap, Democrats are wagering, is nothing a little rhetorical red meat can't close.

"The rhetoric is a bit more liberal or progressive than the last couple of conventions," said Jim Manley, a veteran Democratic operative. "This is in part an effort to play to the base and the changing makeup of the Democratic Party."

Of course, Democrats are still shy about using the words Manley used. "Liberal" has been uttered just six times, according to transcripts compiled by the New York Times. Rep. Emanuel Cleaver, chairman of the Congressional Black Caucus, accounted for four of those occasions; another time it was used, Illinois Gov. Pat Quinn was talking about the "liberal deductions" Romney took on his tax returns (Cleaver is also the only speaker to have used the word "progressive" so far).

The tenor, though, is unmistakable. For once, Democrats are seeing polling that tells them that the liberal positions are popular. The middle-class messaging that dominated Warren's address and former President Bill Clinton's speech has been a cornerstone of Obama's stump speech.

The emphasis on economic progressivism could pose a challenge for some Democrats seeking reelection in more-conservative states. Candidates such as Sen. Jon Tester in Montana, Sen. Claire McCaskill in Missouri, and Heidi Heitkamp in North Dakota already have invested heavily in establishing themselves as independent figures by putting distance between themselves and the administration. The Keystone XL pipeline has been one way all three of those Democrats have differentiated themselves from the national party; no speaker at the Democratic Convention has referenced the project, while it came up three times at the Republican gathering in Tampa.

But those Democrats have largely avoided the convention itself. Of the party's prominent Senate candidates, only Warren and Rep. Tammy Baldwin of Wisconsin, both of whom will try to ride Obama's coattails in November, and Virginia's Tim Kaine, the former party chairman, are on the speaker's roster. None of the four leaders of the Blue Dog Coalition and only one of the five members of New Democrat Coalition leadership — Rep. Allyson Schwartz — spoke.

But the party on display in Charlotte is a far cry from the party that downplayed its liberal flank in previous conventions. It's Obama's best opportunity to get his base fired up and ready to go.

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