Emanuel’s Effective Triptych

Emanuel’s Effective Triptych

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Mayor Rahm Emanuel of Chicago was last night’s forgotten man.

The star of the evening was Michelle Obama, of course, with her perfect pitch rendition of an ode to her common husband. His strength of character allowed him to steer through the myriad crises he’s confronted during his first term in office while delivering on promises like health care, gay rights and ending the war in Iraq, she said.

San Antonio Mayor Julian Castro delivered an impassioned keynote address that highlighted the stark contrasts between the Republicans and Democrats on immigration. It also underscored the demographic differences between the two parties’ rising Latino stars: the Republican Marco Rubio rooted among Florida’s expat Cubans while Democrats like Castro coming from the broader and far more populous émigrés from Mexico and Central America.

Yet from the vantage point of pure speechcraft, President’s Obama’s former chief-of-staff did better than expected. More importantly, he appealed to a constituency that will be crucial to the Democratic Party’s chances this November – working class voters in Midwestern swing states.

Anyone who listened closely to his speech heard a rarity for political conventions oratory. He gave an insider’s first-hand recollection of a major decision point that more than anything else highlighted the president’s response to charges that he had failed the nation on jobs.

During the debate over saving the auto industry (he never used the word “bailout”), some of the president’s top advisers said the loan program would be like “throwing good money after bad,” he recalled. Others recommending saving General Motors, but not Chrysler. No one gave the rescue better than a one-in-four shot of prevailing.

Only the president wanted to go “all-in to save the industry,” Emanuel said. “President Obama listened to the voices that mattered to him most – the voices of the auto workers and the communities that depended on them, just like the voices of the steelworkers and communities on the south side of Chicago where he worked earlier in his career.”

And then he capped that section of his speech with his signature line for the evening. “That was the change we believed in. That was the change we fought for. That was the change President Obama delivered.”

It was the third time he had used the triptych in his speech. Its sing-song cadence, previously used to describe the 4.5 million new jobs created since the depths of the recession and the president’s delivered promise on health care reform, allowed Democrats and independents to feel good again about the soaring promise of hope and change that had swept Obama into office four years ago.

Repetition of key phrases is a classic tool of the speechwriting craft. One need only think of Martin Luther King’s historic “I Have A Dream” oration at the landmark civil rights demonstration of 1963 that helped pave the way for Obama’s election nearly half a century later.

Emanuel is no King, obviously. But the one-time ballet dancer from the south side of Chicago effectively used that tool Tuesday night to appeal to the working class audience that otherwise was the most overlooked constituency during the Democratic Party’s first convention night. It may not have rung the pundits’ bells. But to the extent any so-called Reagan Democrats were listening, it packed a powerful punch.

“Where Mitt Romney was willing to turn his back on Akron, Dayton and Toledo, Ohio, the president said, ‘I’ve got your back’,” he said. “That was the change we believed in. That was the change we fought for. That was the change President Obama delivered.”

The mayor delivered, too.

spent 25 years as a foreign correspondent, economics writer and investigative business reporter for the Chicago Tribune and other publications. He is the author of the 2004 book, The $800 Million Pill: The Truth Behind the Cost of New Drugs.