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Convention Round-up Day One: Democrats Offer Their Vision for the American Dream

The first evening of the Democratic Convention was filled with speeches driving home the first term policy accomplishments of President Barack Obama and values that undergird those policies. We heard a lot about the differences between the candidates on range of policies including Medicare, foreign policy, immigration, and tax policy. Nearly all of the speakers drove home the importance of the President’s healthcare bill, but this was especially the case for a family whose daughter had a congenital heart condition and, thanks to Obamacare, would now receive the coverage they needed. The main theme running through the various speeches was the Democratic Party’s interpretation of the American Dream – which requires an active role for government, government investment and individual contributions to become a reality.

The line-up of speakers – which included Nancy Keenan, president of NARAL, Lilly Ledbetter, and several women partisans and converts – also spent a significant portion of the evening emphasizing the president’s position women’s rights. House candidate and veteran Tammy Duckworth affirmed, “Barack Obama will never ignore our troops. He will fight for them.” Former Ohio Gov. Ted Strickland vouched for the president’s economic policies:  “Barack Obama refused to let the American auto industry die…Workers across my state and across the country are getting back the dignity of a good job and a good salary.”

One of the most powerful speeches of the evening was delivered by Massachusetts Gov. Deval Patrick, who criticized the economic policy record of Mitt Romney as Governor of Massachusetts. The conclusion of the speech was particularly moving with Patrick calling for a champion in the White House to fight for the cause of future generations. “That champion is Barack Obama. That cause is the American dream. Let’s fight for that.” Pitching the president as an advocate for the causes of the people in the White House is of course rooted in Teddy Roosevelt’s Progressive Era vision of the president “as the steward of the public welfare.”

Julian Castro made history by becoming the first Latino to deliver a keynote address at the Democratic convention. Castro’s speech emphasized the American dream of individualism and opportunity is still alive and well:

America didn’t become the land of opportunity by accident. My grandmother’s generation and generations before always saw beyond the horizons of their own lives and their own circumstances. They believed that opportunity created today would lead to prosperity tomorrow. That’s the country they envisioned, and that’s the country they helped build. The roads and bridges they built, the schools and universities they created, the rights they fought for and won--these opened the doors to a decent job, a secure retirement, the chance for your children to do better than you did.

But Castro also underscored that “The American dream is not a sprint, or a marathon, but a relay,” pertinently evoking the Democratic Party’s focus on the need for individual contributions in concert with community and government contributions.

As Larry Sabato aptly tweeted, the one true parallel between the Republican and Democratic conventions was that the wives (Ann Romney and Michelle Obama) outshone the keynoters (Chris Christie and Julian Castro). Michelle Obama served as both a character witness for her husband and conveyed the importance of family values, an issue on which the Democrats have in modern times often held the weaker position vis-à-vis Republicans.

But when Barack started telling me about his family - that’s when I knew I had found a kindred spirit, someone whose values and upbringing were so much like mine…Like so many American families, our families weren’t asking for much…They simply believed in that fundamental American promise that, even if you don’t start out with much, if you work hard and do what you’re supposed to do, then you should be able to build a decent life for yourself and an even better life for your kids and grandkids.

Though she never mentioned Mitt Romney by name, the First Lady’s speech was, as E.J. Dionne put it, politically masterful in its use of personal stories to highlight the stark differences between the upbringings of the Obamas and the Romneys.

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