National political conventions in the modern era have lost most of their clout. By the time they occur, presidential nominees have been chosen through the primary process, and those nominees have picked their vice presidential running mates. Conventions have become televised showcases for each major party’s ideology, achievements, and strategies.
Media interest has declined over the years. The major broadcast networks stick with summer reruns of sitcoms and dramas until 10pm. In the past, they would air the entire evening’s events.
So viewers get some top-name speakers in primetime, followed by the inevitable “chat” sessions with correspondents and analysts telling viewers if this speaker or that one “hit a home run”, “delivered the party’s message”, or disappointed on the national stage.
By the time Election Day rolls around in November, voters probably won’t remember much of what was said by the speakers, analysts, or opposition critics at this year’s conventions.
All that noted, one little speech last week by a Connecticut official stood out for its “meat and potatoes” expression of what the Democratic Party wants to convey to voters. Though Gov. Dannel Malloy was supposed to be the key Connecticut figure at the convention (and he was busy on the cable news talk shows), Malloy’s convention speech was a bit wonkish. Also, timing was not on his side. Malloy’s remarks came right after an impassioned speech by Rep. Emanuel Cleaver (D-MO), chair of the Congressional Black Caucus.
Several speakers before the Governor, Hartford area Congressman John Larson (D-CT) spoke and delivered a rousing address that included hometown references to a popular East Hartford diner, Augie and Ray’s, East Hartford-based Pratt & Whitney Aircraft, and Larson’s parents. You can call all that hokey, but he used the references to craft a message about American values and Democratic Party principles that would hit home with many voters. Larson, chair of the House Democratic Caucus is the 4th ranking official among Democratic House members.
Larson’s speech, like Malloy’s, was tucked into the early evening hours of the convention—no broadcast or cable news network spotlight, just the gavel-to-gavel coverage offered by C-SPAN. It would have been seen primarily by political junkies, loyal Democrats, and Connecticut reporters assigned to cover state official’s speeches.
The Congressman began by describing his childhood, growing up in a federal housing project in East Hartford and his father who worked as a fireman at the sprawling Pratt & Whitney Aircraft plant in the same town. When Larson asked his dad why he worked so hard each day, the elder Larson replied: “Got to keep the eagle flying, son”, a reference to P&W’s still-used eagle logo. “It was about pride,” Larson told the delegates, “the pride of people who make things in America”. He said it was also about making a fair wage so you could afford college for your kids, plus medical care and a secure retirement.
Larson went on to detail the decline in his mother’s health and the government programs that would protect her. “My dad did his part, and through his Social Security and Medicare contributions—paid it forward,” said Larson. Now his late father’s pension, Social Security and Medicare coverage guarantee his ailing mother gets the care she needs.
Having candidly explained his family situation, not dissimilar to many other Americans, Larson verbally punched at Republicans who want to alter and limit federal social programs “Don’t ever tell me—or any American—that’s a handout,” Larson shouted. “That’s the insurance they paid for!”
Larson said millions of Americans rely on Social Security and Medicare, and for many “it’s the only thing standing between them and poverty” he declared. “What Republicans don’t get is that for so many people like my family, this is personal—Democrats get it,” he said.
Moving on to the Affordable Care Act, President Obama’s health care reform program, Larson said the goal of that plan is to “guarantee that every American has access to affordable care”, as well as cutting fraud, waste, and abuse to extend the financial life of Medicare. Unlike some Democrats who’ve shied away from campaigning on health care reform, Larson defended it.
“Mitt Romney, Paul Ryan and the Republicans derisively call (the health care plan) Obamacare,” said Larson. “News flash to the Republicans: Obama does care!” he exclaimed.
Larson assailed GOP proposals to alter Medicare and create vouchers for seniors on health care, with limited benefits, and more out-of-pocket expenses. The Congressman said Republicans want those changes “so they can cut taxes for the richest 1%”. He stared into the TV cameras and said: “As everyone back home at Augie and Ray’s knows—that ain’t right.”
Smiling at the hundreds of Democratic delegates in the convention arena and quietly acknowledging that most of America wasn’t watching his speech, Larson conceded he was “preaching to the choir.” He continued: “As the sisters of Notre Dame would say, ‘It’s the choir that leads the singing, Democrats’.”
Fired up as he concluded his speech, Larson told the party faithful: “Rise up to elect a leader who understands the dignity of work, who’ll lead America forward, not back. Rise up for President Barack Obama. If we stand together, not only will the eagle keep flying, it will soar!”
The convention audience roared and gave Larson a standing ovation. Though most of America didn’t witness the address, don’t be surprised if Larson gets invited to deliver something like it as a surrogate campaign speaker for the Obama campaign around the country. Much like former President Bill Clinton, Larson proved himself to be a stirring “explainer” who can put the Democratic message into terms and life examples that resonate with blue collar families and middle class voters.
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