The third and final night of this week’s Democratic Convention may have lacked the fireworks we saw on the first two. Michelle Obama and Bill Clinton were eloquent in different ways, and weren’t matched by Barack Obama or Joe Biden on the convention’s closing night. That’s not to say that the closing night wasn’t effective, however. By focusing above all on two of Obama’s decisions—to save General Motors and Chrysler and to send in the Seals to take out Osama bin Laden—Obama and Biden emphasized the two most politically potent contrasts, especially on the latter point, they could draw with Mitt Romney and used those contrasts to make their most telling attacks on Romney yet.
They also did more than that: They set up the election as a choice between a nation run on market principles and a nation subject to the dictates of fairness and inclusivity. Combine Obama and Biden’s speeches with Clinton’s the night before, and the party almost arrived at a governing credo: fairness and inclusiveness are not only right in themselves, they produce a more prosperous nation than a nation run on the narrow calculus that has shaped Bain Capital’s—and much of corporate America’s—priorities.
“Osama bin Laden is dead and General Motors is alive” is a pretty good campaign slogan, not just because it touts Obama’s most obvious successes but also because it enables Democrats to talk about the cramped, market-driven worldview of Mitt Romney, the Republican Party and (though Democrats pursue this delicately) American business. Here’s Biden contrasting Romney’s response to Detroit’s crisis to Obama’s:
When I look back on the president's decision, I think of another son of an automobile man — Mitt Romney. Mitt Romney grew up in Detroit....His dad ran an entire automobile company, American Motors. In spite of that, he was willing to let Detroit go bankrupt. I don’t think he's a bad guy. I’m sure he grew up loving cars as much as I did. I don’t think he understood that saving the automobile worker — saving the industry — what it meant to all of America. I think he saw it the Bain way. I think he saw it in terms of balance sheets and write-offs. Folks, the Bain way may bring your firm the highest profits. But it’s not the way to lead our country from the highest office.
When things hung in the balance, the president understood this was about a lot more than the automobile industry. This was about restoring America’s pride. He understood in his gut what it would mean to leave a million people without hope or work if he didn’t act.
Biden’s was precisely the kind of contrast that convention speakers returned to repeatedly. They did it most obviously when laid-off workers from businesses Bain had taken over told their stories on Wednesday night. They did it subtly when Michelle Obama evoked the image of her husband poring over letters from ordinary Americans every night, something that I think many Americans have trouble envisioning Romney doing even as they know he methodically pores over the numbers behind his decisions to keep a plant open or close it down.
As a contrast to Romney and Bain, the convention highlighted high-road businesses, companies that take a view of success that’s broader than the immediate payoff to investors. That’s why Jim Sinegal of Costco, the anti-Walmart, the discount store that invests in training its workers and pays them well, spoke Wednesday night. It’s why Obama, in the closing passages of his address, extolled, “the family business in Warroad, Minnesota that didn’t lay off a single one of their four thousand employees during this recession, even when their competitors shut down dozens of plants, even when it meant the owners gave up some perks and pay – because they understood their biggest asset was the community and the workers who helped build that business.”
Last night, Obama contrasted Romney’s neo-Dickensian form of capitalism with the more stakeholder-oriented, Fordist capitalism that dominated the American economy in the three decades of broadly shared prosperity following World War II. “We believe that when a CEO pays his autoworkers enough to buy the cars that they build,” Obama said, “the whole company does better.”
Put all this together and what the Democrats offered was an accurate and devastating critique of current corporate capitalism—its elevation of stock value over all other measures of success. Obama won’t say that and I have no reason to believe he thinks it in these terms. But, if the Democrats won’t go quite so far as to say that the very model of American capitalism over the past 30 years has been bad for the country, they routinely criticize that model’s outcomes: the rise and fall of unchecked finance, the explosion of economic inequality, the stagnation of American workers’ incomes.
What both Biden and Obama did Thursday night was to raise the specter of this model coming to dominate government, too, should Romney be elected. Obama began this discussion by affirming the vitality and legitimacy of the market: “We insist on personal responsibility and we celebrate individual initiative,” he said. “We’re not entitled to success. We have to earn it. We honor the strivers, the dreamers, the risk-takers who have always been the driving force behind our free enterprise system – the greatest engine of growth and prosperity the world has ever known.”
Yet, the market, he continued, was not all. “But we also believe in something called citizenship – a word at the very heart of our founding, at the very essence of our democracy; the idea that this country only works when we accept certain obligations to one another, and to future generations.” What the Republicans threaten to do is to subordinate this credo too. While voucherizing Medicare will presumably save the government money (at least up front) and balance its books, it’ll do so on the backs of most American seniors. Obama’s value of citizenship won’t permit that, and it’s on this battlefield that the Democrats will fight this fall. “Our road is longer,” Obama said in his peroration, “but we travel it together. We don’t turn back. We leave no one behind. We pull each other up.” That, Obama has calculated, is what Americans want in their president – at least when the alternative is a slide rule with hair.