This weekend featured a strange event on the campaign trail. With Pat Robertson seated behind him at a speech in Viginia—that's the guy who says God personally warns him about upcoming world events, believes the September 11 attacks were divine punishment for homosexuality, and thinks feminism leads to witchcraft—Mitt Romney got his culture war on. Romney recited the Pledge of Allegiance and thundered, "The pledge says 'under God.' I will not take God out of the name of our platform. I will not take God off our coins and I will not take God out of my heart." So fear not, America: As long as Mitt Romney becomes president, your pennies and nickels will be safe from creeping atheism.
This may tell us more about Romney's strategy for winning Virginia—a state divided between a conservative, rural southern part and a liberal, suburban northern part—than it does about his strategy for winning the country as a whole. But when Romney makes such an appeal, it only serves to remind us how rare it is. Of course Romney's primary focus on the economy is dictated by conditions in the country, and the fact that an incumbent president struggling with unemployment over 8 percent really ought to be doomed. But it's also true that if there were potential customers for fist-shaking attacks about "God, guns, and gays," as the old Republican playbook had it, Romney would be moving much more aggressively to exploit that market. But he isn't, for one big reason: Liberals have won the culture war.
No reasonable observer could question that the Democratic National Convention outclassed the Republicans’ out-of-tune, mishmashy effort in Tampa. (Christie and Clint, need we say more?) Leaving aside poor dear Martin O’Malley, the Maryland governor who fumbled a prime-time opportunity to elevate his 2016 prospects, the headliners were sharp, message-coordinated, and (we’re talking about you, Michelle and Bill) sometimes flat-out brilliant. Maybe the Dems will end up with a bit more of a bounce than the Republicans.
The Institute of Medicine just came out with a report showing that the American health care system wastes an astonishing $750 billion dollars a year, one out of every three health care dollars spent. As Sarah Kliff explains, "So much wasteful spending leaves a lot of space for fixes. The Institute of Medicine recommends a number of solutions and many boil down to a pretty simple idea: Health care should be better-coordinated." There are a lot of ways to do that, but one particularly thorny problem is that doctors don't want anyone telling them what to do.
There aren’t many Democratic politicians who can connect with white, working-class voters. But Bill Clinton, born and raised in Arkansas, and Average Amtrak Joe have the bona fide red, white and blue credentials and oratorical ease that makes them gifted salesmen of the Democrats’ vision. Wednesday night, it was Bill Clinton’s job to present a logical argument for why blue collar Americans should re-elect Obama. Last night, it was Joe Biden’s job to steal the hearts of these same voters, and although his efforts suffered from following in the footsteps of Bubba, Biden’s remarks were moving. Together, these two speeches serve as a potent argument for four more years.
Wow. That was some humdinger of a speech, huh? Clears up a lot about the upcoming election!
No, I’m not talking about Barack Obama's closing address. Sure, the conventions serve as the unofficial kickoff for the final leg of the presidential campaign. But there’s always another story: Who’ll be the nominee next time? Up-and-coming pols have always used conventions as launching pads for future runs; they hobnob in hotel corridors with the Richie Riches who can fund their early ads in Florida. They make small talk with the New Hampshire county chair in the crazy hat. And they aren't always so subtle; many of the 2016 wannabes schlepped over this week to offer presentations to the Iowa delegation.
So the DNC gave us a week that got more and more sober as it went on. By last night, we were down and dirty with tough choices and grim policies. Foreign policy dominated the early part of the evening, with a salute to military veterans that had many in my Twitter feed commenting on how strange it was that the parties have switched places. The Republicans hadn’t even mentioned the wars or the veterans; as conservative Ramesh Ponnuru tweeted, “Really was malpractice, and wrong, for Romney not to mention troops in Iraq, Afghanistan in convention speech.” And so for a night the Democrats became the party of LBJ again, the party of a strong military and uncompromising attack.
CHARLOTTE, NORTH CAROLINA—Now that the Democratic National Convention is over, both parties will move to take positions in the final phase of the 2012 election. Republicans have already launched their opening salvo, with a massive advertising buy of 15 spots in 8 states. Indeed, now that Mitt Romney is the official nominee, his campaign is finally free to spend a large chunk of the money it raised over the last four months. With the help of a poor August jobs report, the Republicans will continue to hammer President Obama over the weak economy, and try to drive undecided voters to their side.
The August jobs report of the Labor Department is not great news either for the U.S. economy or for the Obama campaign. The headline drop on the measured unemployment rate, from 8.3 to 8.1 percent, conceals deeper weaknesses.
The economy generated only 96,000 jobs in August, far lower than the monthly average of around 200,000 in the spring. The nominal unemployment rate declined only because more people have given up looking for work. The ratio of employment to population declined by 0.2 percent.
The Labor Department also revised the July and August monthly jobs numbers downward by about 20,000 each, leaving the 2012 job-creation performance below that of 2011.
At times, Barack Obama's speech last night felt like a State of the Union address—a lengthy recitation of issues, one after another, during which you could imagine pundits writing "Booooring!" in their notes, and then you'd find out the next day that the public loved it. But the limitations of the speech demonstrated the difficulty Obama has as an incumbent. The expectations are high any time he gives a major speech, but last night's was a reminder that a large part of what made Obama such an effective orator in 2008 was particular to the role of challenger, and something that simply can't be duplicated now.
To put last night in context, we have to go back to 2008. In the last election, Obama's speeches had not just a second-person perspective but an active second-person perspective, talking not only about who you are but what you are doing. This was absolutely critical to giving his campaign that feeling of history in the making, and history as something participatory. It tapped into a deep yearning among all Americans but particularly among liberals. Here's something I wrote about it at the time...
CHARLOTTE, NORTH CAROLINA—When the economy is poor, an incumbent president has few options for reelection. If he looks back, he reminds voters of hardship. If he looks forward, he seems like he’s ignoring the problem. His only choice is to defend his record, and hit the other side for unfair attacks. It’s not an effective approach—voters don’t like it when the president pleads for fairness. Challengers have an easier task. As long as they can identify hardship and propose a plan that looks effective, voters will join their cause.
There’s oh so many reasons to hate the phrase “mom-in-chief," the highly criticized phrase that cropped up in the end of Michelle Obama’s otherwise well-received speech Tuesday night. Let’s start with the most obvious, which is it’s yet another reminder that even amongst liberals in the 21st century, women still have to reassure the public that just because they’re independent doesn’t mean they don’t love their children. It’s also another example of how women are still expected to define themselves not by their accomplishments in the world, but by their relationships to other people, in a way men are never expected to do.
At this year's Republican convention, the speeches were largely competent but uninspiring. Do you remember anything Marco Rubio said? It was only a week ago. No, none of their speeches will stand for the ages. The Democrats seem to be faring better, with Michelle Obama's terrific speech on Tuesday night and former President Bill Clinton's wonktastic 90s throwback address on Wednesday. In advance of President Obama's speech tonight, here's a review of some of the most notable speeches (for better and, occasionally, for worse) of the last 80 years.
Last June, Ohio’s Republican state legislators sought to pass an extremely strict voter ID law, with deeply disturbing implications for minority voters. It would have been among the strictest in the nation, requiring voters to show a government-issued ID with virtually no recourse for those lacking the necessary documents. But the opposition came from an unexpected place—Ohio’s Republican Secretary of State Jon Husted.
When I first read that the Democratic platform said nothing about Jerusalem, I was quite impressed. Quietly, by omission, the party had brought a moment of honesty to the fantasy-ridden American political discussion about Israel.
We don't yet know how many people watched Bill Clinton's speech last night, but since on the first night of the Democratic convention ratings were a bit higher than for the Republican convention, it's fair to assume we're talking about something in the vicinity of 30 million viewers. Which is fine, but it isn't anything close to a majority of the electorate. But even if most voters didn't actually see Clinton's speech, just the fact that everyone is aware that he's out there vouching for Barack Obama can have an impact. Because the basic question of the campaign—should we keep this guy and his people in charge, or turn it over to that other guy and his people?—will be answered in a context created by people's memories of recent history.