By Monish Tourangbam
The Republican Party and the Democratic Party recently held their national conventions in Tampa, Florida and Charlotte, North Carolina respectively. And they officially nominated their presidential and vice-presidential candidates and adopted their party platforms. Over the years, the nominations at conventions through delegate counts have become mere formal obligations, the nominees having been already chosen through the primaries. In simple words, conventions are no more decision-making events. And the platforms, too, do not add much to what the candidates have already said during their campaign tours. So, conventions are about a lot of show and some inevitable businesses that are not given much primetime anyway. Moreover, conventions are scripted to the tee, but surprises do spring up like the clearly avoidable ‘invisible man in the chair’ act by Hollywood actor Clint Eastwood in the Republican convention and the Democratic Party’s goof-up over the exclusion of “God” and “Jerusalem is the capital of Israel” from its platform.
The major theme this time around in both the conventions was: this election is no run-of-the-mill, but one that offers two different paths for America. Two different roads but one goal: reclaiming the “American Exceptionalism” that seems to be slipping out in the midst of the slowest economic recovery since the Great Depression. And like the traveler in Robert Frost’s famous poem, ‘the Road Not Taken’, Americans are being offered a choice to take one of the roads. And, as Frost wrote: “…two roads diverged in a yellow wood, and sorry I could not travel both,” American voters need to choose one: the Blue Highway or the Red One. Through their platforms, and the many speeches delivered during the conventions, the two parties have made it clear to the people that the election offers them the choice of a generation, a choice between two fundamentally different visions resulting from two vastly different value-sets. There is not an inch to budge and a fault line seems to divide the United States between a liberal America and a conservative America. A ‘values war’ has emerged during the campaign, and the conventions were no different. The two parties are ideologically divided over a host of socio-economic issues and among others, fundamental differences persist over the issue of Medicare. The Republicans argue that Obama will cut funds from Medicare to fund his healthcare plan (also called Obamacare) and the Democrats accuse the Republican Party of trying to turn Medicare into a voucher system.
The Republican convention was about showing that America in the last four years had not seen the promises that were made in 2008 fulfilled, and that the American people deserved a change in leadership. They wanted to convince the American people that President Obama has had his chance and had failed and now it was time to give Mitt Romney, the Republican Presidential candidate a chance. As the Republican Vice Presidential candidate Paul Ryan said, “After four years of runaround, America needs a turnout and the man for the job is Governor Mitt Romney.” “Without a change of leadership, why would the next four years be any different from the last four years?” he asserted. Romney guaranteed that “…a majority of Americans who now believe that their future will not be better than the past” will be right “…if Barack Obama is re-elected.” A debt clock ran at the Republican convention calculating the growing national debt; to emphasize how the Obama administration had failed to manage the national economy.
A major objective of the Republican convention was to prove that Mitt Romney, otherwise shown as a cold, calculative businessman actually cared for the American people. And Ann Romney did a considerably good job at that, weaving a tale of a humorous, amiable and caring man called Romney, whom she met at a dance and who has stood by her side as she battles multiple sclerosis. Asking for a chance to lead the country to a better future, she said, “He loves America. He will take us to a better place just as he took me home safely from that dance. Give him that chance, Give America that chance.” Ann Romney also employed a better part of her speech trying to reach out to American women voters. Since Republican Congressman Todd Akin’s disastrous remarks on “legitimate rape”, there has been some pressure on the Republican Party to rebut the image of being “anti-woman”. Hence, Ann Romney’s almost teary-eyed rhetoric on the role of women in American society. She tried to solidify Republican women voters and pull in some of those who are still undecided. Women voters have always been President Obama’s strong point.
The Democratic convention was about reminding the people that the four years of Obama Presidency had saved America from falling into an economic abyss, that his life story gave him the values to understand how American people are suffering under the economic crisis, that he had never ducked the tough questions that the Americans face, that he secured the nation by getting Osama and by getting the auto industry back in business. Like the Republican Party speakers that came with full force to argue that the Romney-Ryan team deserved a chance at the White House, their Democratic opponents charged in full armour to argue the case for Obama’s re-election contending that the President had taken America back on the road to recovery, and that the Obama-Biden team needed another four years at the office to realize many of the commitments that they had made for a better America. President Obama’s reelection bid seriously got a bounce from the masterful stroke of oratory and eloquence shown by the party star and former President Bill Clinton, who argued the case for Obama’s second term, more potently than scores of campaigns ads has managed to in recent months.
If there is something that the current campaign starkly lacks, it is a clear explanation of vital policies and plans from both the parties. But, more than President Obama who has been in office for four years, it is the Romney campaign that should be concentrating on precise explanations. The American electorate has a clearer idea of how the Obama Presidency would look like in the next four years. The Republican Convention failed to provide clear answers to ‘how’ they will be different from the Obama administration and just ‘how’ they will take the country towards a better future, that they say the American people deserves. When the Republican Party is running a campaign based on the argument that the present administration has had their chance and that they have failed to deliver, more emphasis should have been given on defining on just ‘how’ they are going to do things differently. And Romney’s failure to define his own agenda left a blank canvas for the Obama campaign. And, President Obama charged the Republican camp for talking “about everything” that they thought was “wrong with America” but not saying much “about how they’d make it right.” “They want your vote, but they don’t want you to know their plan,” he contended. Moreover, the President did not leave that one area where the Romney camp or anyone else could hardly challenge him: foreign policy and national security. Delineating the challenges that America has met and the ones that remain, he asked the American people to choose between a “leadership that has been tested and proven” or the Romney-Ryan team that he sarcastically pointed out were “new to foreign policy” and still stuck in a “Cold War mind warp.” Vice President Joe Biden had a reasonably potent and precise bumper sticker line to add, “Osama Bin Laden is dead, and General Motors is alive!”
Questions regarding the role of the federal government vis-à-vis the American states and the American people severely divide the two parties. Obama’s comment that “if you’ve got a business, you didn’t build that; somebody else made that happen” has ignited criticism as embodying a view that threatens to increase the power of the federal government and scuttle America’s storied rugged individualism and self-reliance. Republicans reproduced a series of individual success stories to attack Obama’s “you didn’t build that” with “we built it” slogans. But the Democratic convention was more than ready for the attacks with keynote speaker, Julian Castro, the mayor of San Antonio, arguing that “…The American dream is not a sprint, or even a marathon, but a relay.” He attacked the Republican interpretation of American individualism saying, “…If we sever the threads that connect us, the only people who will go far are those who are already ahead.” The star speaker Bill Clinton also commented, “…we’re all in this together” is a far better philosophy than “you’re on your own.” President Obama himself added meat to the verbal jostling over the scope and role of the federal government, saying, “…We don’t think the government can solve all of our problems, but we don’t think the government is the source of all of our problems.” First Lady Michelle Obama’s speech was bereft of an overt political tone but in her personal stories of struggles that her own family and Obama’s went through; she gave potent political messages of social justice and highlighted the kind of values that Obama brought into the Presidency which, according to her, will not change. She asserted, “Being president doesn’t change who you are; it reveals who you are.”
The Obama campaign wants the American people to believe that there is a better future ahead, and that full recovery is just around the corner. While, Republicans want the American people to stop taking chances with a president who has failed to deliver on his promises during fours years of office and who will not, even if he is given another four years. The latest August job report showed that just 96,000 jobs were added compared with 141,000 in July. The unemployment rate has reportedly dropped to 8.1 percent from 8.3 percent. But, the unemployment rate has fallen largely because 368,000 people stopped looking for work, many of them young people. The weak jobs report would lead to more partisan bickering over governance. But, Bill Clinton in his speech pre-conditioned the battle lines saying, “…when President Barack Obama took office, the economy was in free fall. It had just shrunk 9 full percent of GDP. We were losing 750,000 jobs a month. No president – no president, not me, not any of my predecessors, no one could have fully repaired all the damage that he found in just four years.”
Amidst all those balloons, glitz and expensive sets, Obama-Biden and Romney-Ryan lapel pins and funny campaign hats, conventions also serve as launching pads for future politicians and the so called rising stars of the party. Remember a largely unknown Illinois senator who gave a historic convention speech in 2004 and fours years later became President Barack Obama. The keynote speech are usually given to those rising stars, where they do speak with an eye to their future ambitions but the main objective still remains talking about the Presidential and Vice-Presidential candidates. The speech fails its purpose when one begins singing about oneself beyond an extent. The Republican keynote speaker and presidential hopeful Governor Chris Christie of New jersey was found concentrating more on his career than on highlighting the careers of the Republican presidential and vice-presidential candidates, a job that he was called to do on the convention day.
Romney campaign has repeatedly used its bumper sticker line “Are you better off than you were four years ago” alluding to the sluggish economic recovery, the increasing national debt and the high unemployment rate. Ronald Reagan had famously used this “are you better off” strategy in 1980 running against incumbent Democrat Jimmy Carter. And Reagan won the White House. Thus, it’s no surprise that the Romney campaign keeps invoking everything that Reagan stood for and more than often compares the Obama Presidency to a “failed” Carter Presidency. The atmosphere post the conventions have not changed much and the race remains as deadlocked as ever. The conventions have not tilted the scales very much in anyone’s favour. The American public is at large not satisfied with the way the Obama administration has handled the economy, but at the same time do not see as to how a Romney Presidency will solve the problems that America faces. People seem to be buying the Obama campaign’s argument that things could have been worse, given the situation in which President Obama came to office.
Conventions are held surrounded by supporters. The entire show and speeches are highly scripted and tightly controlled to project the image that the particular convention would produce the next President and Vice-President of the United States. But, it is those who watch the convention on their television sets, especially in swing states who will actually decide whether the convention was a success or not. Given the way the American economy is performing, analyses and precedence would say that Romney should be leading the polls by now but this has not happened and the race still remains very close, with President Obama emerging a slight favourite in many post-convention polls. So one could discern that many American voters are still not convinced that Romney is the right man to take the country back on track to economic growth and vitality even though they are not very much happy with the way Obama has performed. A more important series of events awaits voters and viewers in the form of the Presidential and Vice Presidential debates that usually has a much larger viewership and will be more consequential because of their one-to-one encounter on contentious issues. President Obama is fighting a test of survival and hence, vigorous campaigning especially in the swing states can be expected in the days to come.
(The writer is an Associate Fellow at Observer Research Foundation, Delhi)