A tale of two con­ven­tions

The Covington News - - Opinion -

Judg­ing by the party con­ven­tions, you’d won­der why this elec­tion is even close.

In Tampa, de­spite some un­ex­pect­edly am­a­teur­ish stage­craft, Republicans put on a cred­i­ble dis­play of unity and re­solve. No one could come away doubt­ing that the party very much wants to de­feat Pres­i­dent Obama in Novem­ber.

But I think it’s fair to con­clude that the GOP’s em­pha­sis is on “de­feat Barack Obama” rather than “elect Mitt Rom­ney.” And many of the party’s ris­ing stars, judg­ing by their con­ven­tion speeches, seem to be­lieve it’s likely that Rom­ney will lose.

Com­ing to Char­lotte, N.C., I expected to see a party on the de­fen­sive. In­stead, Democrats or­ches­trated a con­ven­tion that felt strik­ingly fo­cused and spir­ited. Speak­ers re­lent­lessly em­pha­sized the “re­elect Obama” side of the equa­tion, rel­e­gat­ing “de­feat Rom­ney” to sec­ond billing. The or­a­tory was su­pe­rior, the vi­su­als were more tele­genic and there were no Clint East­wood mo­ments.

You can’t con­clude that just be­cause the Democrats’ three-day in­fomer­cial was bet­ter than what the GOP put on, Obama is go­ing to win. But even if the con­ven­tions aren’t re­motely as im­por­tant as they once were, they’re not mean­ing­less. They do say some­thing, and this year the mes­sage for Democrats is de­cid­edly hope­ful.

As I said, the GOP did a re­spectable job. The most ob­vi­ous missed op­por­tu­ni­ties came on the fi­nal night — not just the East­wood In­ci­dent, but also the fail­ure to en­sure that some of those trib­utes to Rom­ney’s char­ac­ter from in­di­vid­u­als whose lives he touched aired on the broad­cast net­works. But none of this amounts to a ma­jor dis­as­ter.

The­mat­i­cally, how­ever, there was a me­an­der­ing qual­ity to the Tampa con­ven­tion. In large part, this was due to the de­ci­sion by some of the mar­quee speak­ers to spend more time talk­ing about them­selves and their ac­com­plish­ments than about Rom­ney.

I’m talk­ing about Gov. Chris Christie of New Jersey and Sen. Marco Ru­bio of Florida — both, not coin­ci­den­tally, seen as po­ten­tial pres­i­den­tial can­di­dates in 2016 should Rom­ney lose. It was hard to imag­ine why Christie and Ru­bio — and sev­eral other speak­ers as well — would give such pri­or­ity to their own po­lit­i­cal prospects if they re­ally be­lieved Rom­ney would be oc­cu­py­ing the White House for the next eight years.

In Char­lotte, by con- trast, there was prac­ti­cally no free­lanc­ing. Ev­ery speech cen­tered on one of two clear themes: Why vot­ing for Obama and the Democrats is right and why vot­ing for Rom­ney and the Republicans is wrong. Self-in­dul­gence and self-pro­mo­tion were not al­lowed.

Even one of the most fa­mously un­con­trol­lable speak­ers of our time, for­mer Pres­i­dent Bill Clin­ton, stayed re­lent­lessly on mes­sage throughout a mas­ter­ful 50-minute speech. Republicans who sus­pected — or hoped — there might be a glim­mer of day­light be­tween Clin­ton and Obama must have been dis­ap­pointed.

Clin­ton’s pow­er­ful ar­gu­ment for Obama’s re-elec­tion was con­structed like a lawyer’s brief. He sys­tem­at­i­cally coun­tered the Rom­ney cam­paign’s main lines of at­tack — Medi­care, wel­fare, didn’tbuild-that — and of­fered a won­der­fully suc­cinct dis­til­la­tion of how Democrats see the dif­fer­ence be­tween the two par­ties: “We be­lieve that ‘We’re all in this to­gether’ is a far bet­ter phi­los­o­phy than ‘You’re on your own.’”

Clin­ton’s em­brace of Obama — po­lit­i­cal dur­ing the speech, phys­i­cal when Obama walked on­stage at the end — was com­plete and un­re­served. Might the for­mer pres­i­dent, to­tally by co­in­ci­dence, have also be­gun to lay the ground for a pres­i­den­tial run by Hil­lary Clin­ton in 2016? If so, I think he just wrapped up Obama’s sup­port.

All right, Clin­ton

is a unique po­lit­i­cal as­set whom Republicans couldn’t be expected to match. But frankly, in terms of speechi­fy­ing, any one night in Char­lotte was bet­ter than the whole week in Tampa. The Democrats’ first evening fea­tured a barn­burner from Mas­sachusetts Gov. De­val Patrick, a stemwinder from San An­to­nio Mayor Ju­lian Cas­tro and a rafter-raiser from first lady Michelle Obama — plus a cou­ple of also-ran speeches that would have been con­sid­ered rhetor­i­cal high­lights at the GOP con­ven­tion.

And for all the talk of an “en­thu­si­asm gap” fa­vor­ing Republicans, the en­ergy lev­els inside the two are­nas tell a dif­fer­ent story. It’s not that the Tampa hall lacked en­thu­si­asm, it’s that the Char­lotte hall seemed ab­so­lutely on fire. Maybe it was des­per­a­tion among Democrats who re­al­ize that Obama could pos­si­bly lose. Maybe it was the acous­tics. What­ever the rea­son, I don’t know any­one who didn’t notice the dif­fer­ence.

Con­ven­tions don’t win or lose elec­tions, but they can help or hurt. This tale of two cities says Pres­i­dent Obama has had a very good cou­ple of weeks.

Eu­gene Robin­son is a Pulitzer Prize win­ning colum­nist and writes for The Wash­ing­ton Post. He can be reached at eu­gen­er­obin­son@ wash­post. com.

EU­GENE ROBIN­SON

COLUM­NIST

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