PHILADELPHIA — When Barack Obama spoke at his final Democratic convention as president Wednesday night, it was impossible not to remember the night in 2004 when his first speech to the DNC in Boston launched him onto a lightening-fast path to the White House.
He was just a state senator then, but convention speeches can do that for a person who is able to match his rhetoric to the moment. It happened for Sen. Marco Rubio after he spoke to the Republican National Convention four years ago, and Housing and Urban Development Secretary Julian Castro, who can trace his spot on the short list for vice president this year to the speech he delivered as the mayor of San Antonio to the 2012 DNC.
So as the Republican and Democratic conventions wrapped up this week and last, I was curious to hear who party members and attendees thought had popped out as their parties’ rising stars. But instead of long lists of new names, I almost universally got blank stares or extended silences.
“Um, nobody?” one Democrat said to me. Republicans had just about the same answer.
For very different reasons, the conventions featured the faces of the past and present for each party, but the obvious stars of the future were harder to find.
For the Republicans in Cleveland, there were so many no-shows at the convention to nominate Donald Trump that the event became a huge missed opportunity to showcase their best and brightest talents. Neither South Carolina Gov. Nikki Haley nor Nevada Gov. Brian Sandoval spoke last week at what could be their last moment on the national stage.
New Mexico Gov. Susana Martinez stayed away and so did every member of the Bush family, including George P. Bush, Jeb’s son and the land commissioner of Texas who is widely assumed to be the next Bush likely to be a breakout star.
I followed up with several delegates who went to the RNC to see whom they remembered best. No one really stood out, one delegate said to me. Another agreed and added, “I’m sad for our country.”
Others worried that if Trump fares poorly in November, he could take out dozens of the party’s future leaders with him, whether they went to the Cleveland convention or not.
Democrats in Philadelphia seemed to have the opposite problem. With so many of the party’s current generation of leaders and superstars in prime-time spots, from Michelle Obama to Bill Clinton, Bernie Sanders, Elizabeth Warren, Joe Biden and Barack Obama, there was simply too little light or oxygen left over for still-growing talent.
“There just wasn’t room for anyone else,” a delegate told me. When I asked another who might have emerged as the next Obama, the answer I got back was a shoulder shrug. “There’s not much of a bench.”
Together, the conventions seemed to both reflect and presage a potential lost generation of political leaders. The Trump factor may already be wiping out opportunities for young Republican leaders, who either don’t want to be associated with him or won’t have their jobs if he causes major losses down-ballot.
On the Democratic side, the two Obama terms were remembered in Philadelphia as eight years of moving forward on progressive promises, but they also cost Democrats control of the House and Senate and took out dozens of potential stars in the process. Would one of those defeated Democrats have risen to prominence at the DNC? We’ll never know.
Of the conventions’ speakers who got the most buzz, Ivanka Trump and first lady Michelle Obama stood out as two of the very best. But they were deliberately apolitical speeches from two women who appear to have no interest in going into politics. New Jersey Sen. Cory Booker’s performance stood out for some Democrats, but even he couldn’t nail down one of the highest profile, late-in-the week slots with so many others getting the time.
We don’t know yet how November will turn out, but it was easy enough to see this week that we’ll have to wait four more years to see what the future is really going to look like for Democrats and Republicans, because we definitely didn’t see it at the parties’ conventions this year.
Roll Call columnist Patricia Murphy covers national politics for The Daily Beast. Previously, she was the Capitol Hill bureau chief for Politics Daily and founder and editor of Citizen Jane Politics. Follow her on Twitter @1PatriciaMurphy