That’s a wrap for the Democratic Party’s convention in Charlotte. Now we are truly in the last hurrah of this endless, exhausting and mostly uninspiring campaign. Before pivoting to the final days, here are some thoughts on the Democrats’ big pep rally.
First, four Positives for the Democrats:
1. The Democrats are now, officially, better at this stuff than the Republicans. I don’t just mean running a convention. I mean campaigning, messaging, packaging, all the things that feed a modern, state-of-the-art national election. Their guy, Barack Obama, is a black man running in a terrible economy with a very mixed record and he’s still in the game, maybe even poised for a handy win. Why? Because Democrats are no longer the electoral patsies of the Mondale-Dukakis-Gore-Kerry variety. You may not like their story, but they’re telling it much, much better than Republicans are telling their story.
2. I think we began to see the outlines of a real governing philosophy in Charlotte, one that I think Republicans may have a very tough time campaigning against in the final two months of the campaign. For the last three years, Democrats have mostly been in the trenches, fighting for specific things like the stimulus package, healthcare reform and bank regulation. Republicans have branded that stuff “big government” or “socialism.” Democrats took a bit step in Charlotte toward making an argument that all that stuff instead adds up to “fairness” and “opportunity,” particularly for the middle class. If that meme takes hold, it’s big trouble for Romney-Ryan.
3. Republicans have a gravitas problem. The tea party may mature into something deeper and more confident. All that energy is still very young and muddled. But for now, the contrast between the incredibly deep Democratic “bench” — Clinton, Kerry, Biden, Clyburn, Lewis, Granholm — and the sparse Republican one is striking. In part, it’s a reflection of the fact that the GOP is deeply nervous and conflicted about its most recent history. There’s a reason that Sarah Palin, George W. Bush and Dick Cheney weren’t on the stage in Tampa. But it’s also true that the tea party has sent a lot of the Republican Party’s “grand old” leaders packing. Some people have been snickering about the disparity between Bill Clinton and Clint Eastwood. I think it’s a serious issue.
4. I think this convention hit just about the right note for white people. I know, I know. A lot of the rhetoric has been about how diverse the Democratic Party is, vis a vis the GOP. But Democrats also have to find a way to be the party for average white guy Joes and Janes, who right now are leaning more and more toward the Republicans. Race is always a tricky dance. But the visuals and the messages from Charlotte struck me as offering a pretty comfortable seat at the table for white suburbanites worried about middle class security. White women, in particular — including married, older women who are drifting away from Dems — might be open to this message.
Now the four negatives for the Democrats:
1. The message about “patience” and job “incomplete” may be too little, too late. Barack Obama made a lot of promises about righting the economy quickly. Today’s jobs report is a needle poking, poking, poking at that balloon. I think if Republicans were offering a sexier, more coherent economic alternative — with a more likeable standard bearer than Mitt Romney — this would be a nearly impossible argument for Democrats to make. The best, though imperfect analogy here might be George W. Bush’s handling of the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq. By 2004, people were pretty disgusted with the direction of things. Running against a weak challenger, John Kerry, Bush eked out a narrow win by arguing a similar “stay the course” message to the one Obama is peddling. We’ll see if the country’s mood is similar this time.
2. Most of the people in that big room in Charlotte don’t have thick wallets. I know, I know, you don’t want that to matter. You wish that it was irrelevant that the Democrats have school teachers and union members waving flags, while the GOP has kajillionaires. But it does matter. Now that the conventions are over, we’ll see just how much those $100 million fundraising months (that’s per month) will lift the Romney campaign. Indeed, under current campaign finance laws, political parties and events like Charlotte and Tampa will likely continue to fade in importance, while Super PACs and mega-donors gain dominance. Advantage: GOP.
3. Obama just wasn’t that great last night. I know, I know: Democrats wanted him to look more like a president, less like a rock star. And he had some tough acts to follow. But in a convention that generally exceeded expectations, I’d say the president underwhelmed. Clinton rose above the text on his teleprompter, Obama delivered the words well and serviceably, but not with the kind of engagement that energizes living rooms and gets people talking at the water cooler. If Romney were better, and had delivered a speech that lifted his audience (the way Obama did four years ago), I think the Democrat would be in tough shape.
4. Democrats need to see the numbers move their direction in the polls and so far that hasn’t happened. In fact, in recent weeks the race has tightened to the point where their “big blue wall” advantage is now perilously thin. Yes, Obama leads in 9 out of 10 battleground states, but in almost every case the difference is within the margin of error – and in nearly half the states, it’s under 1%. That’s pretty scary for an incumbent. To be a huge success, Charlotte needs to help Obama get some breathing room in at least one big battleground state — Florida, Ohio or Virginia — and so far we haven’t seen that kind of bump.
So as to avoid false journalistic equivalencies, I’ll close by returning to my very first point under “positives.” Charlotte was an extraordinarily effective week of political theater and messaging. Tampa much less so. I’m guessing Team Obama feels pretty good going into the debates.
Now over to you: your impressions?