In an interview on ABC News24 following President Obama’s acceptance speech, I argued that neither he nor Romney got any sort of lift (or ‘bounce’) from their respective conventions. This was confirmed in initial polling; they remain in a dead heat (at about 47% each). All the hoopla made little impact. Both men were received with appropriate adulation from the hall – though Democratic fervor is surely as odd a phenomenon as Republican. (Some very strange people attend and enjoy conventions. Can’t the world be improved more immediately by spending time visiting the lonely old, the neglected young, a few of the huddled masses?)
On balance, however, I think Romney came out North Carolina better than Obama out of Florida.
First, Mitt did not have to labor under the presence of a clearly preferred candidate. He had no Clinton to cast a shadow – only a Clint. Indeed, the GOP convention showed that Romney was the best of a rather limited set of candidate options; they picked the more electable man, the most centrist. The Democrats, as Clinton’s speech demonstrated, did not. What the delegates really wanted was a Clinton third term – precluded by the 22nd Amendment. The 43rd president’s strength and popularity served to highlight the weakness and declining popularity of Obama. The candidate that might provide that third Clinton term – Hillary – chose (cunningly?) to avoid the convention. Her husband was implicitly chastising his party for spurning her in 2008 – as well as preparing the ground for its correction in 2016. His sustained appeal spoke volumes about Obama’s failing re-articulation of it.
Second, the failure of both candidates to offer specific policies (beyond a laundry list of Obama’s ‘I wants’) reflect more negatively on the president than on the challenger. Obama has to defend a record and must make specific proposals to redress deficiencies in it. Why and how will another four years achieve what the first four did not: jobs and a budget moving toward balance? Romney, though he was also policy-lite, can prosper on the same terrain as Obama did in 2008: by simply being the ‘unObama’ candidate. How Obama must miss having Bush to kick around.
Three, it’s still ‘the economy, stupid!’ A phrase so effective when used by a Democratic challenger in 1992 is now haunting Obama the incumbent. There are as many Americans out of work today as there were on 20 January 2009. Claiming credit for things that did not happen – the collapse of the US car industry for example, or a national debt default – does not offset taking the blame for things that did – such as the persistence of unemployment and negative housing equity. The centrality of the economy means Obama’s not inconsiderable foreign policy successes – such as killing bin Laden and toppling Gaddafi – have no real electoral upswing. Romney may be making his Russia policy having watched Rocky IV but so what? (Stallone beats the Russian opponent and in the process begins Glasnost and Perestroika – something that John Kerry’s arrival in the Senate, the same year as the film’s release, did not achieve.)
So we have entered the home straight, T-minus 9 weeks – and the conventions which marked the last bend gave us two men running toward a looming tie. The debates in October are fast becoming the last opportunity to create a meaningful lead.