This is a crappy time to be president. GDP diving. Manufacturing is down. Unemployment hangs steadily over eight percent. Congress is in gridlock. A war still rages, which apparently no one beyond those fighting it or dying for it care about. Even the stuff that doesn’t suck is created out of thin air by opponents. The Democrats are in control of the office and must defend it over the next 60 days and it more or less started this week in Charlotte. Unlike Republicans, whose job at their convention was to put a face to all this talk about Mitt Romney being the font of business acumen and shrug off allegations of his casual disingenuousness, and, if possible dent the overwhelming disadvantage in the gender and Latino gap, the Democrats need to ramp up damage control and then go about undertaking the thankless job of convincing those once beatific followers of Barack Obama this baby isn’t a complete dud.
The Republicans may have missed an opportunity to go beyond “throw the bum out” and present a viable alternative to the six or seven percent of undecided and/or independent voters which will decide this election; thus giving the president and the Democrats a sliver of daylight to argue that Barack Obama, while being something less than a messiah, is not the harbinger of doom. The Republicans painted an ugly picture last week, perhaps overreaching. All the Democrats have to do with a likable candidate that the country not only knows but voted for in greater numbers than any Democratic presidential nominee in a generation, is prove that being less than stellar is far less dire a prospect than destroying the Western Hemisphere.
Failing that the Democrats turn at The Show must at least rouse its base and try and rekindle the incredible enthusiasm that gripped the Hope & Change Obama Machine of 2008. This is nearly impossible, for what the Republicans deftly accomplished last week when not derailed by a seemingly half-soused octogenarian Hollywood icon mumbling incoherently at an empty chair, was to say that all the hoopla and energy and soaring rhetoric cannot be digested this time without first combing the record that is there for all to see.
Many Democrats pressed to answer the famously quoted Reagan query from the 1980 campaign; “Are you better off than you were four years ago?” fumbled it badly on nearly every Sunday morning news show prior to the convention, something the Republicans did not mess with in 2004 by quickly pointing out the positives of two unwinnable wars and an exploding debt. The Democrats argument cannot be won on the promises proffered by the 2008 Obama campaign, but to say the brink of economic collapse, a Dow Jones at 6,500, the loss of 750,000 jobs a month and two unfunded wars raging out of control in the late summer of ’08 is not far worse than the slowly trudging economic recovery of ’12 is hardly rocket science. One Democratic strategist remarked to me the other day, “If a Republican president killed Osama bin Laden and doubled the stock market in three years they’d have already erected a statue of him.”
The Democrats have decided, if these evenings of processed drama be believed, is to embrace the idea of anti-government as anti-American, the way the Bush re-elect campaign used anti-war as being anti-American. This segues neatly into what this week has been the first real defense of what everyone, even chirping Democrats, now call Obamacare, which still polls terribly as a monolithic piece of legislation, but gets gangbusters ratings when stripped into vital segments.
Things did not begin well for the convention upon the discovery of the word “God” stricken from the Democratic platform giving the God-crazy Republicans, whose most fringe voices have vociferously depicted the president as either a Godless heathen who is hell-bent on stripping religious freedoms or an evil Muslim insider looking to enact Sharia law, a mighty hammer. But soon The Show was underway and the speeches, initially highlighted by First Lady Michelle Obama (the most political speech given by a First Lady since perhaps Eleanor Roosevelt in 1942) and the keynote, the 37-year-old Mexican-American mayor of San Antonio, Julian Castro (a sugary attack dog act), which duly patronized the woman and Latino voter base.
And then it was time for the Minister of Fun.
By the time former president and current lauded statesman, Bill Clinton, had wrapped up his half-improvised 48-minute screed, the entire pundit class was left genuflecting in awe. Nearly every conservative voice on the news networks heaped reverence on Big Bill with an embarrassing level of girlish glee, calling the entire race a wash and the point of whatever the current president could manage to utter the next evening would be backwash. Liberals wet themselves.
For the first time in this election cycle a representative of the political realm actually talked policy, numbers, economic strategy and the effect of ideological debate on the grand structure of governance. It was as if the Wizard of Oz had not only pulled back the curtain but driven a Panzer Tank through the heart of Munchkinland. And it was done with the causal pace of a passing stranger in a hotel bar. It was the finest piece of political theater this reporter has seen in some time and not only roused the base, but could also well have tipped some independent scales. What it may have unintentionally done was eclipse the entire idea for the charade of voting for candidates that might well be incapable of achieving its measure; most specifically the man he was there to defend, whose ability to explain these concepts over four years has been sadly non-existent.
The damn speech, far too long and dripping with Arkansas smarm, kicked ass, took names, and rang every bell available to ring within 10,000 miles of North Carolina, where Barack Obama and maybe the progressive set was making its final stand.
To that end, the president took the stage the next evening and offered up a less than stellar defense beyond “I need more time” and “Things are working” with the occasional swipe at the soaring rhetoric that made him a most compelling candidate four years ago and eventually an historic presidential choice. But it rung hallow in its shadow, like a fading rock band trying to recapture its relevance. Whether this performance and another week of The Show excited those whose enthusiasm has most assuredly waned remains the story of the next two months.
The president still has the mathematical advantage in the Electoral map and his opponent offers only answers to all this fancy economic stuff that are pretty much the same ideas that still helps keep this economy in a slog and the deficit rising (the Bush tax cuts remain), but make no mistake, Barack Obama’s most looming foe in 2012 is the guy from 2008. Problem is no one can beat that guy.