The tone of the Democratic National Convention’s third night was clear: optimism. Optimism about America, about the future, and about President Obama’s re-election.
That wasn’t the tone of the Republican convention. Theirs was one where they said a dark and dreary future awaited America if Barack Obama were to be re-elected. Ultimately, optimism is why the DNC may indeed provide the bounce for Obama that Romney did not get from his convention.
To be sure, both conventions did deal in fear. Women were told to fear what America would be like under a Romney Presidency. Latinos were reminded that Mitt had called for “self-deportation” and threatened to undo the Obama decision to allow “dreamers” to stay — children born or brought here young and while lacking documentation have never known another home. The middle class was told that a Republican country would take from them and hinder their chances in order to give the wealthy more tax cuts. Jobs would go off shore, the chance to create a sustainable economy would be harmed under a Romney-Ryan administration. All those fears, often exaggerated, were on display in Democratic speeches.
However, unlike the Republicans, that wasn’t the taste the convention left in its aftermath. The exuberant optimism of Joe Biden saying “don’t bet against the American people,” rang louder. While fears of what Republicans would do were stated very clearly, there was never a claim that electing Romney would bring the downfall of the American dream. The argument was pitched positively – President Obama represents the best hope for the American dream.
There was a time when the Republicans seemed to own optimism. In the wake of a decade of crisis – defeat in Vietnam, Watergate, energy crises, the hostage crisis and the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan, Ronald Reagan’s optimism was his key to success. His message was simple: despite the fact things looked bleak for the US – that our best days may be behind us – our values will prevail. Never bet against the American people.
This year, the Democrats own that message. The Republicans have chosen to rely on economic pessimism to lead voters to choose to give up on Obama as unable to fix the problem. What they forgot is that Ronald Reagan did not win because Americans gave up on Jimmy Carter. Ronald Reagan won because he offered change – a coherent view of what could be done differently, with a strong sense that the first job would be to have Americans believe in themselves again. That optimism was key to his appeal.
Beyond that, the Democrats moved in on GOP territory in other ways. While Mitt Romney failed to mention “the troops” at all, perhaps not wanting to arouse memories of Iraq and George W. Bush’s wars, the importance of veterans and the military was a theme of the convention. Michelle Obama and Jill Biden trumpeted their work on behalf of military families. Biden talked about his son Beau, and the President spoke deferentially about the duty of a country to care to those who have served to protect and defend it.
The convention also had a strong nationalist tinge, something that at times left many Democrats a tad uncomfortable. Yet it served two purposes. GOP rhetoric has often hinted that Obama is too internationalist and distant from American values. Indeed, for many that’s the danger he represents, that he’s leading us to an America far different than than the one we grew up in. The Democrats pivoted that to an argument that the world is indeed changing, but President Obama is responding in a manner shaped by quintessential American values. Tied to the idea Romney is hiding tax secrets and off shore accounts, the Democrats have made clear that if there is a debate about who is more “true to America,” they’ll not stand down.
Finally, the Democrats embraced their own liberalism with a confident gusto that surprised some pundits. They didn’t limit talk about Obamacare to a few lines buried in speeches shifting attention elsewhere. They owned it. They defended it, and they defended the core progressive ideal of government needing to play a powerful role to help provide equal opportunity. They made an impassioned pitch for seeing progressive ideals as the true core values of the country, with the Ayn Rand like rugged individualism of the GOP out of sync with our community spirit. They embraced clearly and strongly support for gay marriage and abortion rights. They weren’t ashamed of being liberal.
The Democrats also rejected the notion that their goal is to create dependence or that Democrats don’t value success. Indeed, in speech after speech they provided examples of poor folk working hard to create a better future, and stressed that the value of a job is not just the paycheck one earns. Rather, the dignity one gets from having a job, and the example one can give to his or her children is the true value of being employed.
Will it work? Will this convention catapult the Democrats to a clear lead and perhaps put the House in play? After a lackluster Republican convention will Americans recall the hopes of 2008 and believe that the GOP offers simply a return to the policies that created this mess?
That’s where the Republicans botched their message. By not setting a clear alternative to both the Democrats and their own policies before 2008, they come off as having nothing new to offer. It’s as if a guy weighing 320 goes on a diet to get down to a healthy weight of 230. After a year he’s at 295 and still fat. So he decides to give up exercise and better eating in order to go back to the old lifestyle because the new one hasn’t worked. Maybe the new one isn’t working fast enough, but the old lifestyle is sure to fail! Not giving a clear alternative left the Democrats an opening to say the GOP would go back to Bush era policies.
My gut, biased as it is for President Obama, tells me that this will work. The Democrats needed to make their case clearly, optimistically, and without apology stressing how their vision is a truly American vision. But even if it doesn’t work, even if the campaign spending by the Romney camp and continuing economic gloom allow the Republicans to have another big year, Obama and the Democrats were right to put forth a forceful and powerful message. If they’re going to lose, they need to lose while standing up for principle, not trying to avoid politically risky moves.
That’s another thing that helped Reagan – while the Democrats in the 80s were struggling to define who they were, no one doubted Reagan had a set of core values. Now that’s reversed. While the Republicans seem torn between the tea party hardliners and a Mitt Romney who even Republican faithful admit seems to have no core, the Democrats are united behind a President who lays out clear principles. Just as the Democrats attacked Reagan’s principles in the 80s, without a clear alternative the public judged their argument unpersuasive. Now it’s the Republicans without a clear alternative, and that could be the point that tips this election to the President.