3:40 pm Sep. 4, 2012
Josh: How much of this Democratic convention is going to be remedial communication work, making up for what Obama says he didn't do enough of early on? Is Charlotte going to be about taking credit for the accomplishments of the first term or selling voters on the idea of a second?
Steve: There's probably some extra pressure to talk about the first term now, since the Obama surrogates didn't have their signals straight right away on the "Are you better off?" question. But it's a really delicate balance, I think. Reeling off Obama's accomplishments as if they're triumphant achievements just won't sound right to swing voters, even if the achievements (like, say, the stimulus) really were landmark.
So there's this simultaneous imperative to remind voters that he hasn't been sitting on his hands for four years and that he really does grasp the problems the country is facing and really is chipping away at them while making it clear that he knows how totally inadequate the results are. That's step one. Then step two is to bring context into it—to remind voters exactly what Obama inherited and from whom he inherited it (without Obama ever using the name "Bush") and to play up the Republican intransigence that's kept him from doing more.
Josh: Context! As you point out, that's a tough thing to rally around, even if it is the thing that possibly allows the re-election campaign to navigate the "better off" question. Doesn't there have to be something more affirmative, based on whatever evidence they can muster that the administration's policies are pushing the economy toward an actual resurgence? Isn't that the gist of the keep-going argument Bill Clinton was making in that recent ad? "The plan to rebuild America from the ground up" and all that?
Steve: I mean, yeah, but they've also been burned going down that road before—remember the Recovery Summer? I think the Clinton ad was telling; it was all about making the race a broad choice between two competing visions. There was no mention of what Obama has done, only talk about that "plan" and how it contrasts with what the G.O.P. is offering. I think one of the messages here for voters is that there's basically an unbreakable, Republican-caused jam in Washington now, and that the election represents a chance to end it.
Josh: How do they convey that without sounding like they're making excuses for not living up to the economic goals the administration publicly set for themselves three years ago?
Steve: I think the Clinton ad was the preview. Basically, the message is: The other side hasn't learned anything from the last decade. Remember where the country was when Clinton left office? Remember what happened during Bush's two terms? Now look at Romney: Is he offering anything different from what ran the country into the ground and created the mess that Obama answered?
Clinton really is the perfect messenger for this, and the Republicans have contributed to it by making him a major part of their anti-Obama narrative. He's the "good" Democratic president, in their telling, the one whose legacy Obama has thumbed his nose at with his reckless spending and devotion to Big Government and partisanship. With Republicans singing his praises, Clinton has become one of the most popular public figures in the country. You know he'll deliver a great speech. I wonder what it will sound like to any casual voter who's bought into the G.O.P.'s Clinton/Obama separation narrative.
Josh: Anyone other than Bill Clinton (or Barack Obama) who you can see playing a meaningful role in Charlotte?
Steve: I don't have a good read on Julian Castro. He's got an opportunity, simply because the media automatically pays attention to the keynote address. So maybe he'll end up being a Cuomo/Ann Richards/Obama breakout star. But my guess is he'll fall more in the Evan Bayh/Harold Ford/Mark Warner category. Elizabeth Warren will be worth watching too. I've been all over the map on that race, but I'm back to thinking Brown is likely to win. Warren really hasn't had a moment that's captured the public's imagination since that viral video last year. The speech is a chance for her to create another one, and she really needs it.
Josh: Bounce predictions? Do you think the two conventions will have affected the race in any meaningful way, when all is said and done?
Steve: I'm remembering '04, when the Dem bounce for Kerry was minimal but the G.O.P. managed to leave New York with a pretty healthy lead. I basically buy the argument that giant bounces don't happen anymore—the electorate is so polarized and candidates can consolidate their party's softer supporters more easily and earlier.
But my gut says the Democrats have an opportunity to squeeze more from this than the G.O.P. got out of Tampa. I could see Clinton and Obama both delivering really strong speeches, and Biden and even Michelle getting good responses too.
If the Democrats don't get a real bounce, I'd say it will hasten the demise of the convention as we know it. Combined with the G.O.P.'s experience last week, it would finally suggest that there's no point in doing these things anymore.