Judging the Party Conventions
With the dust starting to settle from the conventions—now ages ago in campaign terms—the prevailing sentiment is that the Democrats got the better of the two-week extravaganza. This seems to be the case both quantitatively and qualitatively. (See, Stephen, Construction’s not biased, just accurate!) The question, then, is why?
Certainly, it wasn’t the soaring rhetoric of the commander-in-chief. President Obama’s speech was widely seen as a disappointment, with a muted tone more fitting of a State of the Union address than a convention speech. As I wrote heading into the convention, President Obama faced an incredibly difficult task, given the disconnect between his strength as a speaker and the sour mood of the country. While I agree the speech lacked the inspirational quality of his more celebrated speeches, he did a fine job matching his rhetoric to the political moment. At the very least, he held serve and did nothing to detract from the stronger speeches delivered by the First Lady and President Clinton.
President Clinton’s speech almost certainly helped. The speech was a ringing endorsement of the president and a stinging rebuke of his opponents, filled with facts and figures and coming from the only living person who a strong majority of Americans think did a good job as president. While a Democratic former president endorsing a Democratic candidate may be unremarkable, Republicans have foolishly built up Clinton as the “good Democrat” while the media has tried to hype tension between the Clinton and Obama camps, lending Clinton’s speech even greater weight than it might have otherwise had. The substance of Clinton’s speech stood in marked contrast to the platitudes and (being charitable) half-truths proffered at the Republican Convention, skillfully highlighted, as usual, by the fine folks at The Daily Show.
And here is where we get to what I see as the real difference between the conventions, and the reason President Obama has seen his lead expand. Ezra Klein has written extensively about “the policy gap” between the campaigns—namely, that President Obama has policies, and Mitt Romney does not. As Klein explains, this is understandable—President Obama has spent almost four years trying to govern the country; his policies are out there, and he has no choice but to explain and defend them. Romney has spent the last five years running for president, and his agenda is crafted to serve that purpose rather than present a coherent plan for governing the country.
[pullquote_right]What the Romney campaign failed to appreciate, is that Romney’s lack of substance is the most important reason that voters do not trust him.[/pullquote_right]
The strategy heading into the Republican Convention seemed to be threefold: highlight the failures of the Obama administration, make Romney look more human, and say as few substantive things as possible. The idea was not to promote Romney as a strong and effective leader as much as to present him as an acceptable (and human!) alternative to a guy who is not getting the job done. Rather than highlight what Romney would do as president, the parts of the convention that were about Romney mostly focused on his strong ties to his family, his church, and his community.
I think that, with this strategy, the Romney campaign underestimated the intelligence of American voters. (Which, I recognize, is a strange claim when a large number of those voters can’t tell whether President Obama or Romney was more responsible for the death of bin Laden.) What the Romney campaign failed to appreciate is that Romney’s lack of substance is a large reason—and the most important reason—that voters do not trust him and see him as lacking in heart and conviction. While Romney does often seem awkward on an interpersonal level, I doubt anyone ever questioned that he loves his family or is kind to his neighbors and the members of his church. The greater problem is that he speaks only in platitudes and has shown such willingness to abandon positions once they become politically inconvenient. So while the Republican Convention was effective in showing that Romney is a good and decent human being, it strengthened rather than dispelled the notion that, professionally, he’s just a guy with good corporate training who’s going to say and do whatever he thinks he needs to do to get from Point A to Point B.
The lack of substance has continued to haunt Romney in the days following the conventions. During a contentious portion of his Meet the Press appearance on Sunday, Romney again refused to explain what specific exemptions and deductions he would eliminate to make his tax plan work, instead thinking he could change the meaning of words by saying “the specifics are these which is (sic) those principles I described are the heart of my policy.” Romney has been harshly criticized—from left and right—for failing to acknowledge the troops in his convention speech, or to explain what he would do about Afghanistan as commander-in-chief. Just as damaging as these omissions has been the campaign’s clumsy response to the criticism, when he seemed to suggest that he doesn’t consider the troops or the war to be important, and after one of his advisers called foreign policy “a distraction.” This bungling has led to Romney being hit with the worst accusation that a Republican presidential candidate can receive—that he is John Kerry.
By making their convention almost entirely about why Barack Obama should not be president rather than why Mitt Romney should, the Republicans offered the Democrats an opening: go ahead, make your case. According to the polls thus far, the Democrats met this challenge. If the numbers hold, at some point Romney may have to make a bold shift in strategy, like actually explaining what he would do as president.