Julián Castro's Rebuttal to the GOP

The much-hyped keynoter launches the Democratic counterargument to Republicans' "We Built It" fervor.

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Reuters

CHARLOTTE -- So many political speeches tell the inspiring story of the candidate's (or his ancestors') humble roots, their struggle from nothing to greatness, that the trope can get tiresome. We heard it over and over again from the Republican convention last week, from Marco Rubio's parents to Mitt Romney's grandparents, stories summoned to demonstrate the limitless possibility of the American dream.

Julian Castro, the rising Democratic star who delivered Tuesday night's Democratic convention keynote, was no different. But he used his story to answer the Republicans' argument for individualism with a case for activist government.

"In Texas, we believe in the rugged individual. Texas may be the one place where people actually still have bootstraps, and we expect folks to pull themselves up by them," Castro said. "But we also recognize there are some things we can't do alone. We have to come together and invest in opportunity today for prosperity tomorrow."

Castro, the 37-year-old mayor of San Antonio, told the story of his grandmother, an orphan who came from Mexico at a young age and dropped out of fourth grade to work unskilled jobs to feed her family. The lesson of the life she bequeathed to her grandsons, he said, wasn't that anyone can make it on their own -- it was that we all need support on the road to success.

Romney, he noted, once counseled students they could borrow money from their parents if they wanted to start a business. "Gee, why didn't I think of that?" he said. "Some people are lucky enough to borrow money from their parents, but that shouldn't determine whether you can pursue your dreams."

In many of its contours, Castro's speech resembled President Obama's now-infamous "you didn't built that" riff. From "roads and bridges" to "schools and universities," he pointed to the products of government investment that undergird all our lives. Where Republican delegates and politicians in Tampa hurled the speech at Obama like an epithet, turning it around into a "We built it!" chant, Castro insisted the president was right to begin with -- that no one really builds anything alone, and that a helping hand from government can make the difference. (Still, Democrats seemingly can't help making this argument in ways that open them to ridicule: Earlier Tuesday, the convention host committee released a video containing the cringe-inducing line "Government is the only thing we all belong to.")

"We all understand that freedom isn't free," Castro said. "What Romney and Ryan don't understand is that neither is opportunity. We have to invest in it."

Castro's speech could hardly have been more hyped. In recent weeks, his name was scarcely mentioned without "the next Obama" in the same breath. The first Hispanic to deliver a convention keynote, his billing was a deliberate echo of 2004, when then-state Senator Obama delivered his famous, career-making appeal for unity beyond the "red states and blue states" paradigm.

Castro didn't quite reach that level -- and his speech will be far overshadowed by the arena-rocking address with which Michelle Obama followed him. He smiled too much, especially at the beginning, which combined with his youthful looks to rob him of gravitas. He leapt into attacking Romney before he got around to praising Obama; in 2004, by contrast, Obama didn't mention then-President Bush at all. And at some level, his personal story and his argument didn't quite match up -- he didn't point to any opportunities created for his family by government aid, and he basically said his forebears did just what he mocked Romney for suggesting by giving their children a helping hand. It's not easy to laud the grit and determination of your ancestors while also saying people like them need help.

But as Democrats attempt to defend their ideas this week against the GOP's charges of wasteful, big-government liberalism, and to make a positive case for a president in whom many have lost faith, they couldn't have done much better than Castro and Michelle Obama. "In the end, the American dream is not a sprint or even a marathon, but a relay," Castro said. "My mother fought hard for civil rights so that instead of a mop, I could hold this microphone." In Castro's telling, you didn't build that -- we all did.

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Molly Ball is a staff writer covering national politics at The Atlantic.

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