The United States finished Act One of its quadrennial orgiastic political kabuki last week with the Republican and Democratic National Conventions. Originally these conventions served the function of actually picking the candidates, much as a caucus picks its leader. Today they are instead a total schmozzle means of motivating one’s base and making one’s case to undecided voters.
If there were ever two candidates that needed the time for these purposes, it might be Mitt Romney and Barack Obama. Each finds himself fighting a war on two fronts; their bases are not fully behind them, and they have significant downsides to overcome with undecideds.
At the RNC, Romney made lots of pitches to family and faith: ‘All the laws and legislation in the world will never heal this world like the loving hearts and arms of mothers and fathers.’ 'Too many lines like that will put you in a diabetic coma (even in the States), but Romney and vice presidential candidate Paul Ryan rode them hard, appealing to the faith-and-freedom base of the party that has been at best divided about Romney.
Ryan’s comment that ‘each one of us was born for a reason, bearing the image and likeness of the Lord of life” had people leaping from their seats in exultation like early church Christians to the lions.
From the start of his campaign, Romney has had his eye mostly on the swing voters, avoiding slackjawed ‘You Betcha’ Tea Party extremism for the image of a wise and sober father. At the convention, he took careful aim at those voters again, confiding the hope and inspiration that ‘we all had’ when Obama was elected, and following with a left hook to the gut: ‘You know there’s something wrong with his job as president when the best feeling you have is when you voted for him.’
It’s a good political point to make. Of course, it’s predicated on ignoring the situation Obama came into as president (a strategy the Coalition in Australia has itself worked to a diamond stud), but no matter.
The brutal political truth is, it’s hard to get people to vote for you if their lives seem worse. Nobody cares how challenging it’s been for you, or even that you killed Osama bin Laden (a point the Democrats beat so fiercely at the convention they should have worn war paint) if there are no jobs.
What’s more, Guantanamo Bay remains open, Obama has overseen a scary (and largely unreported) number of drone strikes in Pakistan, and his attitude of cooperation and compromise has proven largely naïve in the grossly partisan politics of the present day.
Since at least the midterm elections of 2010 Democrats have consoled themselves by saying no one could match the expectations they had for Obama. ‘He’s just a man.’
And that’s true, but also not a great sales pitch. The crowds at the convention loved him; the framework he gave to the election -- individualism or community, the politics of hope or the politics of power and fear – well captures the choice people will make in this election.
But his policy platform amounted to, ‘Just have faith; we’ve got some great things planned.’ It works if you’re Willy Wonka, or your first four years have proven to be a great success; but when things seem still on the knife’s edge, it’s actually a little galling.
The greatest major speech from either convention came from Bill Clinton -- an amazing accomplishment given that he spent most of it explaining policy. Clinton is our Paul Keating; there really is no one else out there, including Obama, who has his ability to explain policy in a way that is clear and compelling.
Also notable is kindly Sr Simone Campbell, one of the ‘Nuns on the Bus’, a group of American sisters who went on a 2700 mile bus trip to stand up for struggling families against Paul Ryan’s slash-and-burn(-the-poor) budget proposal.
Sr Campbell spoke of the need for continued aid for the needy and universal health care, declaring this is ‘part of my pro-life stance and the right thing to do’, to thunderous applause from the DNC. ‘We care for the 100%, and that is what will secure the blessings of liberty to ourselves and to our nation.’ Given the climate in which American nuns find themselves, it’s a speech that would make St Mary MacKillop proud.
Stepping back, what does any of this tell us about the election in November? Probably very little. There’s still two months of this nonsense nightmare ridiculous and appalling waste of money and Clint Eastwood jokes campaign before the actual election. If the RNC is any indication, Romney still has trouble with his base; in the first 25 minutes of his talk his punch lines sometimes echoed in silence. And for undecided voters the jihad-extremism of the Republican Party makes Romney seem a Manchurian candidate, the soft sell that helps the loonies take over the asylum.
But the economy of the United States remains weak, and Obama a bit detached. At the end of his speech I could have sworn he looked bored. For the entirety of his presidency, he has shown a strange, Hamlet-like tendency to wait until it’s almost too late to fight back. That approach didn’t serve Hamlet terribly well; and it’s not serving the US well, either.
Jim McDermott SJ is a former associate editor at America Magazine. He is currently studying screenwriting at the University of California in Los Angeles. This year he spent his summer vacation down under, interviewing politicians for a screenplay about Australian politics.