In the Arena

About Last Night: Wow

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Callie Shell / for TIME

First lady Michelle Obama takes the stage before speaking on the first day of the Democratic National Convention in Charlotte, N.C., on Sept. 4, 2012.

The streets and hotel corridors of Charlotte are still vibrating this morning after Michelle Obama‘s remarkable effort, the Democratic Party’s remarkable opening convention night. There was just a quantum leap of energy from the tamped-down Tampa Republicans last week, real joy in the hall as opposed to the barely concealed anger that has tainted the Republican Party these past few years. And the message was clear:

“[The President] reminds me that we are playing a long game here, and that change is hard, and change is slow, and it never happens all at once,” [Michelle Obama] told the Democratic National Convention in Charlotte, North Carolina. “But eventually we get there. We always do.”

Or as San Antonio Mayor Julian Castro put it in his keynote address: progress “isn’t a sprint or a marathon, it’s a relay race.”

I’ve seen both parties stage great convention nights in the past–Republicans do it as often as Dems–but I’ve got to say that this year, at least, the Dems seem to operating at a more sophisticated level than the GOP, and with an energy and enthusiasm that can’t be faked. The First Lady’s speech was at once a subtle response to the arguments against her husband that the Republicans made last week and a rousing sermon, building from quiet–and her own doubts about public life–to forceful, poetic advocacy.

My immediate boss, Nation Editor Michael Duffy, made a significant point this morning (editors are known, occasionally, to do that) about the rhetorical contrivance at the heart of the speech: The First Lady set herself up as the doubter, nervous about her new role, anxious about how the Presidency would change her husband and the lives of her children. But she was the one who had grown over the past four years, gaining a sense of the nature and importance of the mission. Her husband, by contrast, was calm, steady, reliable, unchanged by the office. It’s not a new point, but when Michelle Obama said that the presidency “reveals” who you really are, the contrast to Mitt Romney was immediate and inevitable without her having to say it–we really don’t know who Mitt Romney is, what he actually believes, whether he’s the moderate who governed Massachusetts or the Tea Party toady who campaigned for the Republican nomination.

This morning, the Republicans are saying that the Democrats only celebrated public servants and neglected entrepreneurs in their speeches last night. That’s mostly, but not entirely, true: the First Lady talked about the values of the President’s grandmother, a banker. I love hearing the stories of clever, hard-working entrepreneurs who really did “build” their businesses through hard work–my dad was one–but I’m more inspired by the story of Congressional candidate Tammy Duckworth, a retired Lieutenant Colonel who lost both her legs when a rocket-propelled grenade landed in her lap as she was piloting her Blackhawk helicopter in Iraq. The things we build together are every bit as important as the things we build individually. We need both to prosper as a country.

The Republicans have demonized government to the point of ridiculousness. Listening to them, you’d think the only thing government does is give money to undeserving poor (non-white) people. And if the Democrats sometimes slouch toward over-regulation and over-nannying, there is–as my colleague Michael Grunwald never tires of pointing out–only one  (tiny) new bureaucracy that’s been created by the Obama Administration over the past  four years: ARPA-e, which funds basic research into energy innovation, just as DARPA–which really did invent the internet, did basic research on the silicon computer chip, and developed a host of other cross-over products–did in the Pentagon. (ADD: I should say that ARPA-e was the only new bureaucracy created in the Obama Stimulus package.)

The Republicans have also demonized the Obamas, in blatant and subtle ways. Paul Ryan’s obnoxious line last week about him and Romney knowing what places like “Wisconsin and Michigan are like” during good times was countered by Michelle Obama talking about what it was like to grow up black and hopeful–and responsible, and morally rigorous–in Illinois in good times and bad. And the Republican “We Built That” individualism was countered by the First Lady saying that “We know that when you walk through that door of opportunity, you don’t slam it behind you. No, you reach back” and help the next ones coming up.

I watched the speeches on television last night, as I almost always do–it’s best to see them the way most people do–but reports from friends who were in the hall say the atmosphere was extraordinary…and so I think I’ll break my rule and go into the hall to listen to Bill Clinton tonight. He’s got a tough act to follow. But you know he’s going to be worth the price of admission.