Five Takeaways from the DNC

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.

As for Democrats, they’re banking on a few things to carry them to November and a second term for President Obama—while avoiding one major issue they need to tackle. Here are five big takeaways from the convention: 

Context, context, context

When I asked one member of the New Mexico delegation how she would sell Obama’s first term to a skeptical voter, she paused and gave an answer I’ve heard from everyone I’ve spoken to: “It’s harder to build things up than take them apart.” Over the next two months, Democrats will focus on the context of the past four years. They’ll emphasize the extent to which George W. Bush's policiies bear responsibility for the economic situation, and highlight the degree to which Obama has moved the country forward. Expect to hear echoes of this line from Bill Clinton’s speech: “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.”

The party of national security

In his surprisingly fiery speech, John Kerry had one particularly memorable line: “Ask Osama bin Laden if he’s better off than he was four years ago.” Joe Biden doubled-down the sentiment with a line from his stump speech, “Osama Bin Laden is dead, and General Motors is alive.” Both Biden and Kerry—as well as Jill Biden and President Obama—devoted lengthy sections of their speeches to praising veterans and promising support for those who have returned from combat. Democrats have decided to run hard on national security, and press the advantage they’ve built on the ruins of Bush-era foreign policy. It helps that the GOP is trying hard to avoid this conversation; Romney failed to mention Afghanistan in his acceptance speech, and the Republican National Convention did little to focus on veterans. Republicans squandered their reputation on national security during the Bush years, and it will be a long time before they recover from the damage.

The return of wedge issues

There are a lot of ways in which 2012 is a mirror image of the 2004 election. An embattled president fights for a second-term while a stronger-than-expected challenger capitalizes on the sluggish economy. President Bush eventually won reelection by energizing his evangelical base. The tools? Public anxiety over the growing push for same-sex marriage, and fear of more moderate abortion policies. Growing inclusion has support for made same-sex marriage a winning issue for Democrats. Marriage equality is now the official position of the party, and Team Obama is using it to capitalize on their advantage with younger voters. Abortion policy is arguably more conservative than it was in 2004, but extreme overreach by anti-abortion activists—including attacks on Planned Parenthood and the widespread push for “personhood” laws—have created a backlash among the key demographic of single women. Women speakers took center stage at this year’s DNC. The party gave wide attention to its women candidates, legislators and statewide officeholders, and took the time to highlight the large number of Democratic women who serve in both chambers of Congress. President Obama railed against “Washington politicians who want to decide who you can marry, or control health care choices that women should make for themselves.” Democrats hold a double-digit advantage with women, and they’re hoping to expand that even further. Between Todd Akin’s “legitimate rape,” and the harshly anti-abortion platform of the GOP, that shouldn't be hard to do. 

The party of non-whites

This was a little more subtle, but Democrats didn’t shy away from highlighting the stark demographic differences between them and the Republicans. Walking around the convention hall and the arena, or watching the crowd on TV, it was hard not to be struck by the racial diversity of Democratic activists and party leaders. A large proportion of delegates were African American or Latino, and there were convention meetings devoted to LGBT Democrats, young Democrats, and disabled Democrats. On stage—and in addition to the First Family—there was Mayor Julian Castro of San Antonio, Mayor Anthony Foxx of Charlotte, actor Kal Penn, California Rep. Judy Chu, California Attorney General Kamala Harris, and Maryland Rep. Donna Edwards, among many others. The point is to highlight an important difference between the two parties—Republican diversity on the candidate level, especially among statewide office holders, is matched by Democratic diversity at every other level.

Where are the jobs?

There was one glaring ommission from the DNC: Few speakers said anything about the short-term economic situation. Indeed, the relentless focus on forward movement was an obvious attempt to avoid the obvious—the fact that Democrats lack a plan for passing the aid necessary to reduce unemployment and kick the economy into a stronger recovery. That’s not to say that they don’t have a plan—the American Jobs Act still exists, and if passed, would create as many as 1.9 million jobs over the next year. But Democrats—including President Obama—are loath to mention it, for the simple reason that it has no chance of passing. The truth is that neither party is genuinely committed to reducing mass unemployment. In making this election into a choice between two ideologies, both Republicans and Democrats have turned their attention to long-term strategies for growth. Long-term strategies are good. But what’s needed—right now—is an actionable plan to create oppotunity for millions of unemployed Americans. At the moment, neither Obama nor Romney is willing to step up to the plate.

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