Reflections on the Democratic Convention
Sean Evans, Chair and Associate Professor of Political Science
Sep 8, 2012
Going into this convention, Democrats had several goals. First, they needed to have a good answer for the "are you better off now than you were four years ago" question. To their credit, they did the best they could. In answering this question, they took two approaches. First, VP Joe Biden provided the bumper sticker answer of "Osama bin Laden is dead and GM is alive." This response is the unequivocal "yes, you are better off" by emphasizing a foreign policy and domestic policy success and symbolically (or literally in Joe Biden speak) communicating competence in the traditional "peace and prosperity" theme of most elections. Biden's formulation is good with partisans but not with anyone else because overall numbers on the economy and citizen assessment of it paints another picture.
The more effective argument is the one provided by Presidents Obama and Clinton where they say that Obama entered a bad situation, is making progress, and needs more time to finish the job. This response recognizes the reality of how people see the economy and puts the best spin on Obama's time in office. The emphasis on growth over the past two years and the sucess of GM helps support the case that GM is improving. And the best support for the argument is President Clinton's assertion that no president could have done any better. As a former president who presided over economic success, Clinton has the eexperience and expertise to speak on this. While some people will say that Clinton is a Democrat speaking in support of a Democrat, the fact that Clinton has approval above 60% indicates the many people admire him and will listen to him.
Second, Democrats needed to reconcile the Obama of 2008 with the Obama of the past four years. Barack Obama ran and won the presidency based on his call for "hope and change" and moving toward a postpartisan era where ideology matters less. Realizing that most people are disappointed with him, Obama started off on the right foot acknowledging the people's disappointement and mentioning how he was the candidate of hope and the difficulties that the nation went through dampended that. In short, he conceded that things did not work out as planned and you needed to give him another chance because the alternative is worse. At the end, he tried to restore his lost luster by telling the convention that the 2008 election was not about him but about them because "you were the change" and mentioning how policies he adopted helped several a small child get health care, someone go to med school, and the child of an illegal immigrant not be deproted, and exhorting people to continue the change they fought for.
The problem is that one speech makes it hard to overcome a 4 year record of relentless partisanship as his partisan agenda in his first two years which alienated those Republicans who wanted to work with him, and emboldened those who had no desire to work with him. Then over the past two years, he made little effort to reach out to the Republicans and when he was close to a deal with Speaker Boehner for a grand bargain on the deficit, he ruined it by calling for more taxes when they were just about at a deal. For voters familiar with his record, he gave no indication of how he would be different in the next four years.
Third, the Democrats had to do a good job of defining the GOP's policies. The Republicans made a mistake at their convention by focusing on biography and less on policy. While people had doubts about Romney, he also needed to be able to show that he had a plan to get America on the right path. The Democrats could use their convention to define Romney's policies in such a way as to make him and his policies unacceptable. The Democrats did their best at this claiming that Republicans wanted to raise taxes on the Middle Class, were not concerned with the deficit, vouherize Medicare and make it go bankrupt, etc. The biggest problem is that all the attacks are false as most fact checkers have pointed out.
Fourth, Obama needed to provide a compelling vision for the next four years. Obama does not want to run on the past so he needs to run on the future. That is why he spoke so often in his speech about "the choice" between two parties, two men, and two visions. And the vision that he painted was attractive. However, he was short on details about how to attain it. He made few promises but instead set goals. The goals are basically the same ones from 4 years ago but he had few specifics about how to get there. Overall, most everyone would agree with his goals but the devil is in the details and the campaign is short on those. For someone who said at the beginning that we need "bold, persistent experimentation," he provided no examples.
Whether the Democratic convention achieved these goals is questionable. However, the big test of it success will be poll numbers. Forget the bump, if one occurs. Look at the polls the week of Sept. 17. If Obama is in the lead, he had a success. If behind, he failed. If tied (most likely), we are in for a close race.