Political Asylum — September 5, 2012, 2:06 pm

Michelle Obama and the DeGeneres Vote

For the last four years, it has been painful watching Democrats struggle to coordinate a single message amid the millions of tiny medialets misting around us. Typically, watching a Democrat on television is like seeing a small child on rollerskates wobble along until an inevitable and ugly face plant. Last night, though, Democrats schooled Republicans on how the accumulating speeches of speakers both soft and hard can create an overarching narrative at a convention. Former Ohio governor Ted Strickland showed current New Jersey governor Chris Christie how you strip the bark off your candidate’s opponent: “If Mitt was Santa Claus, he’d fire the reindeer and outsource the elves.” Strickland had a bit of the happy warrior about him. He’d chuckle when he got off one of his zingers, as if to say, I have another one coming. And inevitably he did: “Even his money needs a passport,” he said. “It summers on the beaches of the Cayman Islands and winters on the slopes of the Swiss Alps.”

Massachusetts governor Deval Patrick’s speech was a textbook case of public oratorical structure. He opened by dinging Romney on business: “By the time he left office, Massachusetts was forty-seventh in the nation in job creation.” Then he pivoted into a refutation of the Republican line of “we built this” with a central riff on how public investment pays off. That could easily have faded into stem-winding wonkery. But Patrick whipped it along until bringing the moment down a bit, slowly and sorrowfully describing one of the worst elementary schools in Boston: “Its record was poor, its spirit was broken, and its reputation was a wreck.” He mournfully noted that the opposition was saying that those kids were “on their own to deal with their poverty.” Even though “among them are the future scientists, entrepreneurs, teachers, artists, engineers, laborers, and civic leaders,” we as a society won’t gain the benefits of those potential taxpayers unless we invest in schools and buildings. Then he throttled back up for the closer. “For this country to rise, they must rise,” he told a screaming crowd.

The evening culminated in Michelle Obama’s talk. It was masterful on many levels. The wild praise by liberal pundits is to be expected. E. J. Dionne: “a big hit.” The evidence that it flew rhetorically above anything we’d heard in either Tampa or Charlotte was evident in conservative pundits’ reactions immediately afterward. Karl Rove begrudgingly admitted the speech was “very well delivered,” and columnist Jonah Goldberg, after a few paragraphs of buts, finally had to agree: “All of that said, I thought as a political speech it was excellent and did nearly everything she needed it to do. She was more comfortable and convincingly passionate than Ann Romney.” Probably the most telling review was from Wolf Blitzer, whose tedious beard and even-handedness can dampen any moment. And yet, “The first lady not hitting a home run, but probably a grand slam.”

Thematically, she pulled off something rare. She managed to weave together a love of country with the love of her children and her man. Especially with the latter, there’s always the danger of getting goopy and putting off the audience. She layered those confessional moments with humor: “We were so young, so in love, and so in debt.” Sure, she managed to make the case for her husband, but that was almost the least of it. If the Republicans say they want “our America back,” Michelle Obama was content to describe an America to come. She slyly incorporated gay Americans seamlessly into the various melting pot metaphors that typically dot the speeches of both parties: “No matter who we are, or where we’re from, or what we look like, or who we love.” And at the end: “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.”

She wrapped up her speech with the phrase “mom-in-chief”—linking every anecdote she’d just told and every virtue she’d just extolled with the key voter that Democrats have been chasing these last few months. Call it the Ellen DeGeneres vote. The independent women’s vote. It’s a sensitive voting segment—one that gets distressed by name-calling and gay-bashing. Romney has been courting them with solid rock-ribbed Republican issues, and he’s right about this: women in the DeGeneres demo may very well not like deficit spending or terrifying national debt. But they also appear more likely to be moved by the social issues on which the Republicans have moved far to the right. A recent poll in Virginia and Ohio—two battleground states—reveal that 55 and 56 percent of women there say they disagree with the Republican Party’s position forcing victims of rape and incest to carry the pregnancy to term. Last year, a conservative group called for a boycott of J.C. Penney after the chain named comfortably-out lesbian Ellen DeGeneres as their spokesperson and watched it fizzle. This was around the same time as Rush Limbaugh called Sandra Fluke, who had publicly made the case for including birth control in health care insurance, a slut and then watched scores of his advertisers walk away forever. (Just yesterday, Sears dropped out to become, by one count, the forty-fourth advertiser to flee Limbaugh.)

This segment of the vote is one of three key demographics the parties are courting in battleground states—the others being the Latino vote and the youth vote. The brilliant speech by Marco Rubio in Tampa, the selection of Paul Ryan as the vice-presidential nominee, and Ann Romney’s graceful speech revealed that Romney intended to fight for each demographic head on. After last night, there may be only two demographics left to fight for.

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In 1973, when Barry Singer was a fifteen-year-old student at New York’s Yeshiva University High School for Boys, the vice principal, Rabbi George Finkelstein, stopped him in a stairwell. Claiming he wanted to check his tzitzit—the strings attached to Singer’s prayer shawl—Finkelstein, Singer says, pushed the boy over the third-floor banister, in full view of his classmates, and reached down his pants. “If he’s not wearing tzitzit,” Finkelstein told the surrounding children, “he’s going over the stairs!”

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I spent thirty-eight years in prison and have been a free man for just under two. After killing a man named Thomas Allen Fellowes in a drunken, drugged-up fistfight in 1980, when I was nineteen years old, I was sentenced to life without the possibility of parole. Former California governor Jerry Brown commuted my sentence and I was released in 2017, five days before Christmas. The law in California, like in most states, grants the governor the right to alter sentences. After many years of advocating for the reformation of the prison system into one that encourages rehabilitation, I had my life restored to me.

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