The Good, the Bad, and the Democratic National Convention
Editor’s note: At climactic moments during Election 2012, we’ll be gathering our political writers for a roundtable discussion. The format is this: we’ll pose a question, one person will answer, and the remaining three will follow. Each person has the chance to be the first to answer a question. Four writers, four questions, sixteen answers, infinite possibilities.
Can President Obama recapture any of the hopeful spirit of his ’08 campaign without sounding delusional about the current state of the economy?
Stephen Kurczy: Yes, he can! (Or is that thought delusional?) The bigger question is how. I’d say that a key step in avoiding delusion is in looking coldly at the state of your surroundings, and for Obama this means a sober assessment of the U.S. economy and employment. It’s bad. Say so. Then again, what is a party convention but an entire act of delusion over how much the world actually cares? So maybe we’re already too deep into the rabbit hole to avoid delusions.
Ian Cheney: No, he can’t. The “hope and change” message is dead. If the president wins this campaign, he’ll do it by blaming the other side and by convincing the electorate to trust him. If he re-ignites “hope,” I expect his numbers to plummet and him to lose this election. “Change,” obviously, means vote for the other guy. The path to victory lies in, “This was a lot harder than I thought, and I really want to see this recovery through to the end.”
Ben Hoffman: I get into a little more in my answer to Question #3, but basically Obama needs to strike the right mix of 1. Here’s what I did; 2. But people are still hurting (Stephen’s “sober assessment”); and 3. Republicans are scary and obstructionist (Ian’s “blaming the other side”). Obviously, he’ll try to sound hopeful. But for what it’s worth, and this may be nothing more than a projection, I always thought that line in Obama’s inauguration speech that “the time has come to set aside childish things” signaled not only the end of Bush-era foolishness but also the end of the outsider “hope and change” campaign that put Obama in the White House.
Anthony Resnick: I’m really struggling to figure out what President Obama will or should say on Thursday. There are so many conflicting needs. He needs to sound hopeful about the future and proud of his record without sounding delusional or out of touch with how most Americans view the current state of affairs. He needs to renew his call for unity and say, “We as a people will restore this nation to prosperity,” without saying, “I as a leader have not done enough.” He needs to say, “I have a better plan than my opponent for solving this nation’s problems” without making people think “Okay, where has it been for four years?” As the race currently stands, it appears as though a slim majority of voters are prepared to give President Obama a second term on the reasoning that he’s done the best he could under very challenging circumstances. It’s just very hard to turn that reasoning into a campaign speech.
Whose speech at the DNC are you most looking forward to?
Ben Hoffman: My first instinct is Bill Clinton, who always brings it (not counting his woeful performance at the 1988 DNC, which drew cheers only when he said, “In conclusion”). But I’ll go with Massachusetts Senate candidate Elizabeth Warren, who has the ability to forcefully and succinctly explain liberal economic beliefs. It was her ‘you didn’t do it alone’ shtick Obama was mimicking with his “you didn’t build that” speech, which Republicans then took out of context about eight million times at their convention last week.
Anthony Resnick: I love Elizabeth Warren as well, but I have (probably unreasonably) high expectations for Bill Clinton’s speech. In addition to his skills as an orator, Clinton has such unique credibility, particularly on the economy: consider that, including President Obama, there are five living presidents, then think about how much greater Clinton’s reputation for managing the economy is than the other four. I expect Clinton to place President Obama’s handling of the economy in a larger context in a way that sounds too much like excuse-making when Obama does it himself: 1. I enacted policies that led to record surpluses and booming economic growth; 2. George Bush reversed my policies, the deficit exploded, and the economy collapsed; 3. President Obama is trying to put the economy back on the path I had it on, but Bush screwed it up so badly that it’s going to take time; and 4. Mitt Romney simply wants to re-enact the Bush policies that got us in this mess in the first place. As Ben pointed out back in June, who else can connect on an emotional level while talking about “economic theory?”
Stephen Kurczy: Charlie Crist and Sandra Fluke. Crist, the former Republican governor of Florida and now a registered Independent, recently endorsed Barack Obama and is rumored to be defecting to the Democratic Party. I love turncoat stories! And Fluke is the recent Georgetown law student whom Rush Limbaugh recently called a “slut” and “prostitute” for saying she supports mandatory insurance coverage of contraceptives. I find her outspokenness inspiring, and her speech is bound to draw comical comments from Limbaugh and other right wing nuts.
Ian Cheney: First, Anthony continues to show why the Obama Campaign should hire him. A Bill Clinton diatribe with a “Republicans screwed up all our progress” theme would sound infinitely more legitimate coming from him than President Obama. Therefore, like he was for Ben, Bill Clinton is my first instinct. I also won’t get too creative with my runner up: President Obama himself. It could be the last big speech of his political career. Since speaking is such a strength of his, it feels like a “leave everything out on the field” situation. Does he have a throwback moment in him? We’ll know on Thursday night.
Will/should Democrats remake their case for the Affordable Care Act, or will/should they focus on issues where the politics are more clearly in their favor?
Stephen Kurczy: I said it during the June Political Predictor and I’ll say it again now because godammit for better or worse I am always right (and in this case it’s for the worse): ”The Obama administration really fucked up here . . . Obama and his Dems could have passed almost anything they wanted during the first two years of the presidency. Why didn’t Obama tackle unemployment with more stimulus?” Barack can try to be cute with lines like “Maybe we should call his plan ‘Romney Doesn’t Care,’ because I do care.” But it won’t win undecided votes, it won’t win swing states, and it won’t get Democrats excited about the election. However, because Obamacare withstood a lot of unfounded bashing and outright lies during the RNC, it may be prudent for the campaign to confront the false accusations with a quick and forceful retort. And move on.
Ian Cheney: They’ll certainly mention it. Individual portions of the law are popular, it’s just that the Republicans have done such an excellent job with the politics that “Obamacare” is synonymous with “government takeover.” Thus, the Democrats will stay focused on what’s popular about it. Ignoring it all together would be a glaring oversight.
Ben Hoffman: I’d say the answer to this question is closely linked to the previous question. In both cases—the economy and health care—the message needs to be, “Here’s what we tried to do to help people. Here’s what we’re still trying to do to help people. It wasn’t perfect, and it wasn’t easy, especially with Republicans refusing to help out, and if they get their way and win this election, things will right back to where they were before—Bush tax cuts, the repeal of the ACA, all that.” The key point to make is that Republicans have offered no feasible alternative. On health care, it’s repeal Obamacare. On the economy, it’s do what Bush did. Obama can also sell the passage of the ACA as a leadership thing. As he’s said before, he didn’t do it because it was good politics but because it was the right thing to do. Take that, Chris Christie.
Anthony Resnick: I agree that the Obama campaign has little choice but to talk about the ACA—an incumbent president has to be running on something, and this was the major legislative accomplishment of his first term—but I also think the president genuinely believes in the law and welcomes the opportunity to defend it. I do think Ian is right that the focus will be on emphasizing the law’s more popular provisions rather than defending the unpopular individual mandate, and I suspect there will be a heavy reliance on anecdotes from or about people who have benefited or will benefit from the new law.
What’s the strategy behind hosting the DNC in Charlotte, and did the RNC change the strategy in general?
Ian Cheney: Five facts about North Carolina: 1. It’s large—15 electoral votes makes it one of the largest swing states (with Florida and Ohio; Pennsylvania appears safely blue). 2. In 2008, it marked one of the border states to RedState Land. 3. In 2008, it was the state that the President carried with the smallest percentage, both in total (49.69) and in spread (32 hundredths). 4. With such a narrow margin, the deciding factor was undeniably African-American support. An incredible 74 percent of North Carolinian African Americans turned out to vote, and 95 percent of them voted for Obama. 5. Before 2008, the state had gone to the Republicans in every election dating back to 1976. Even with sluggish numbers, the President’s popularity with blacks makes him a competitor in this typically Red State, and the polls reflect as much.
Conclusion: This important state can be won by recapturing the enormous African American community. I don’t think ads and phone calls will be as helpful as the nation’s first black president giving them a nod, like the location of this convention. It creates a buzz that could drive them back to the booth in numbers similar to 2008, and with the smallest margin of all 2008 states, every little bit helps. Worst case, it forces the Romney campaign to deflect money from Florida and Ohio and put it into a Red State they could otherwise consider comfortably southern. At best, the President strikes another coup and retains the state.
Ben Hoffman: Ian pretty much nailed this one. Now, there’s not much evidence that convention location actually affects voting, and North Carolina, while a swingish state, has relatively few swing voters waiting to be persuaded one way or another. This goes back to what Ian said – Obama won in 2008 not because he influenced a whole bunch of independents – there aren’t many in NC – but because African-Americans turned out in droves. I expect Obama will lose North Carolina this year. Still, it’s perhaps worth a shot, and it’s not as if Democrats can hold every convention in L.A., NYC, or Chicago. Short of trashing hotel rooms or inciting some sort of Duke-UNC riot, it can’t hurt to hold the convention here.
Anthony Resnick: To disprove the accusation that the Democratic Party is in the pocket of union thugs? (Ian and Ben covered the substance here, I’m sticking with snark.)
Stephen Kurczy: Obama lost a pickup basketball game to his friend and owner of the Charlotte Bobcats, Michael Jordan, who has come quite a ways from his 1990 refusal to endorse any political candidate because “Republicans buy shoes, too.” Both men are known to have gambling streaks. Jordan wagered his team; Obama wagered the location of the DNC. Just a hunch.
Big Picture Question: When all is said and done, what will the polls look like?
Ian Cheney: At the time of this writing (Saturday morning), the national polls have never looked tighter. The Real Clear Politics Average shows the President’s lead down to a scant 0.3 percent points. As the first post-RNC polls only began yesterday, I expect that number to swing toward Romney to the tune of a couple points by Tuesday. After the Democratic Convention, the President will get a few points back. Put me down for a one-point lead for the Democrat by the end of the weekend. (Swing state polls are much more important, though, and I look forward to taking a closer look at those with an upcoming column.)
Ben Hoffman: I think that once the convention dust and confetti settle, the polls will look . . . more or less the same as they do now. Two things I’ll be looking out for: first, the job numbers that come out at the end of this week, just after the convention. If they’re bad, it could lead to an annoying “The Dems were partying it up all week while the economy falters” media meme, which could in turn lead to a shift in the polls. Second, I’m interested in Romney’s likability polling numbers, since—with the exception of Chris Christie’s speech—most of last week was an exercise in painting Mitt as nice, nonscary, and just a normal guy. So far it seems he’s seen a slight bump in his likability—though it still seems like everyone is shying away from the stories that would actually make him likable. I’ll be interested to see if that continues.
Anthony Resnick: Early indications are that I was too bullish about how much I thought the RNC would help Romney, so I’m going more conservative this time. The shrinking number of undecided voters and the relatively low interest in this campaign make big swings in the poll unlikely. I expect President Obama to erase whatever gains Romney made from his convention, and perhaps add a point or two more if he can successfully thread the “hope/realism” needle discussed above.
Stephen Kurczy: Rasmussen Reports, which as of September 2 was the sole poler to provide post-RNC data, says the convention gave Romney a six-point bounce, with 48% support of voters nationwide today to Obama’s 44% support, whereas Romney trailed the president by two a week earlier. I agree with Anthony and Ben that the DNC will erase those gains, and I also agree with Ian that none of this really matters. The only metric, the only stat, the only thing in the life of the president that matters, are swing state polls.
Fun Times! Question: Which celeb should the Democrats get to rebut Clint Eastwood, and what should his/her shtick be?
Stephen Kurczy: Nobody. Clint Eastwood used to be a gunslinger, but he shot himself in the foot with his nonsensical and spoiling comments on what should have been Mitt Romney’s triumphant acceptance of the Republican presidential nomination. It doesn’t merit rebuttal.
Ian Cheney: Steve’s absolutely right. This thing spun itself, and the Democrats should leave it alone. Nevertheless, some possibilities: Tom Hanks (for something classy and poignant in an effort to “rise above the fray”), Martin Sheen (for something presidential, preferably written by Aaron Sorkin), and William Shatner (for something hilariously acted to the point of Eastwoodian delirium).
Ben Hoffman: Well, the only celeb I see announced to speak is Eva Longoria, and I can assure you she’s not going to speak directly before President Obama. Probably the Dems will leave it alone, as Stephen and Ian said. But if they were going to do it, the only way to do it would be to get a Clint-lookalike (Hugh Jackson, with some makeup and hair powder?) up there, sit him in a chair, and have Joe Biden have a conversation with him, with Jackson parodying a rambling Eastwood. “Clint, do you know which President invaded Afghanistan . . .” “Do I feel lucky? Well, do ya, punk?” “Clint, focus, we’re trying to discuss how Republicans blocked unemployment benefits from getting extended . . .”
Anthony Resnick: I’m hoping Eastwood takes the stage with President Obama, WWE-style. Eastwood-related sidenote: even as someone who has written about partisans living in separate realities, I’m stunned by how positive the conservative reaction to Eastwood’s appearance has been. Particularly amusing is that conservatives seem to think that the reason liberals are mocking Eastwood is to mask how shocked and wounded we are, since apparently Eastwood is the first person who has dared to mock or criticize the Great Obama.