Michelle Obama deserves all the plaudits she’s getting for a strong speech, masterfully delivered. And Ted Strickland deserves little of the opprobrium aimed at him for a strong speech poorly delivered.
But neither presented a sale-closing message.
The Republican Party at their convention decided that the American people did not deserve to learn what their nominee intended to do as President, or how he intended to address the deep and lingering economic problems that, they claim, justify replacing President Obama. The message was entirely: he failed. We won’t. Because we’re not the kind of people who fail.
Unsurprisingly, that message has so far proven to be a failure.
But the Democrats appear to be playing from a somewhat similar script. Their message, so far, is: reelect us, because we care. And the other guys don’t.
And, speaking for myself, I don’t care. Whether they care. I really don’t. I care whether they know what to do, and whether they can actually do it.
It’s not that I’m against emotional appeals, or using biography to bring home a political point. But you have to have a political point to bring home.
President Obama has several significant domestic accomplishments to point to, and the various speeches all pointed to them. They include:
- Preserving the American auto industry from collapse.
- Achieving universal health coverage through the ACA.
- Preventing the Great Recession from getting even worse (presumably via the stimulus bill and subsequent expansions of the safety net).
You can like or dislike the auto bailout, the ACA and the stimulus bill, but they are the major accomplishments of the Administration in the domestic sphere, and it’s encouraging to see the Democrats running on what they’ve actually done.
But with the exception of the ACA, these are negative rather than positive accomplishments – bad things prevented rather than good things achieved. And the ACA isn’t – or at least hasn’t been presented as – part of an economic recovery narrative.
The Republicans don’t have a story to tell about how recovery will be achieved, which presents the Administration with a huge opportunity. But so far, the Democratic Convention hasn’t seized it. Instead, they are presenting their own version of “trust me” – a more persuasive version, I would argue, than the Republican version, rooted more in specific actions than in a kind of vague cultural affinity. But it’s still a “trust me” story. And I don’t like “trust me” stories.
President Obama could win this election by convincing voters that he’s the lesser of two evils, or that he at least won’t make things worse, even if he doesn’t know how to make things better. But if he wins that way, the rational thing to expect of the next four years is a continuation of political trench warfare.
Running on a positive agenda won’t ensure a change in the political climate in Washington – far from it. But it’s a necessary if not a sufficient condition.