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September 17, 2012

The Good, Bad and Ugly at the Conventions

Richard B. Weldon Jr.

If Tampa represented the core GOP conservative coming-out, Charlotte was an old-fashioned good time, rocking and rolling progressive party.


The performance aspect of the Democratic National Committee’s convention rates a little bit higher than the Tampa fete. Opening with First Lady Michelle Obama's biographical portrait of her husband, former President Bill Clinton's side-by-side assessment of the Obama Administration's performance versus the GOP's description of his accomplishments, and ending with the president's own self-assessment, the whole agenda seemed laid-out to tell the story a certain way.


Mrs. Obama gave a great speech, one of the better First Lady addresses in modern political convention history. She hit the right notes in the right way, with a little humor, melancholy, and red meat thrown in for good measure.


President Clinton once again showed his amazing grasp of policy detail, that knowledge gave him the flexibility to vary wildly from his written remarks. DNC insiders indicate that he extemporized at least a third of his remarks, something almost unheard of in this age of tele-prompters and message discipline.


Remember Clint Eastwood?


The only problem with Bill Clinton's speech was the length. Scheduled for 22 minutes, the former president held the podium twice that long. It hints at the ego problem that gave us the Monica Lewinsky scandal, this belief that we need him to share his knowledge and charisma with us in order for us to succeed.


One unanticipated twist came from former Michigan Gov. Jennifer Grantholm. She has always been a national party leader. She is widely acknowledged to have been a very good governor. Her previous speaking experience suggested a solid, technical performer with a penchant for lofty inspiration and technical detail.


Her Charlotte convention performance suggests something very different. She was a ranting, gesticulating and screeching cheerleader at the DNC podium. Funny and furiously defensive of the Obama agenda, Governor Grantholm may well get rolled out around the country in the next few months to rouse the Democratic base.


Maryland Democrats had a spotlight role, too. Gov. Martin O'Malley had a few chances to rally the party, most notably with his Tuesday night primetime speech as chairman of the Democratic Governor's Association. In contrast with Virginia's GOP Gov. Bob McDonnell, Mr. O'Malley more than held his own.


His biggest problem isn't his charisma and charm (he has plenty of both); his big problem is that his gubernatorial accomplishments in job creation and budget management come up far short when compared to Governor McDonnell.


If these guys are tasked with holding up their respective records as a harbinger of how a Romney or Obama Administration will help the nation recover, then McDonnell wins in a walk-away.


Maryland's senior U.S. Senator Barbara Mikulski also had a primetime speaking slot. She was given the opportunity to talk about the accomplishments of women legislators. Too bad they didn't have her give out that crab cake recipe; it's a goody!


A convention turns on the achievements of the nominee, not the surrogates. In the case of the Republican event, Mitt Romney's task was to help undecided voters see him as someone who can lead a nation to an economic recovery. He had to soften his personality and throw in enough detail to prove he understands the problem.


On the personal side, he accomplished his objective. We learned how unselfish and compassionate he's been in his personal relationships. His deep faith and spirituality are not a trivial or secondary aspect to his essential nature; they are his essential nature.


On the policy side, he came up short. Governor Romney seems to know what he wants to do, but he has so far failed to tell us.


Similarly, President Obama needed to prove that he will do something different in the next four years than what he has done to date. We are mired in an economic muck, with employment statistics reflecting some job growth, but not enough to offset the growth in the "employable" – though unemployed – population.


The president hints at a new level of bi-partisan cooperation, but why would anyone believe that? There is absolutely nothing about his leadership style that suggests that he will be more receptive to Republicans in Congress than he has been for the last four years.


In fact, one could make a case for him being even less inclined to cooperate. If he were to be re-elected, particularly if Democrats continue to control the Senate, or gain control of the House, four more years would grant President Obama amazing latitude to remake the public sector. He could pay back his union supporters, expand social programs and most importantly, continue the work of remaking the U.S. Supreme Court in his own image.


Back to ol' Clint Eastwood for a moment. Even this writer found Clint's speech to the GOP convention a little uncomfortable, both in content and delivery. Now that a bit more time has passed, and Clint's had the chance to get his own story out, it appears that maybe the old gunslinger/movie director knew what he was trying to do.


An online newspaper out of Pebble Beach reports that Mr. Eastwood felt that he "tweaked" the president in exactly the way he had originally intended. It turns out Clint wanted to make people uncomfortable, knowing that the situation in the next decade is so serious, the best way to get the attention of undecided voters was to hit them right between the eyes.


Since Clint Eastwood has no real political or economic credentials, he was left to use his star power as an attention-getter.


It worked.


So, now we have one-on-one debates to look forward to. The first debate will feature six major policy areas, with 15 minutes dedicated to examine each topic.


Unlike the 30-second sound-byte answers of the campaign trail, this will be a real test of both men's policy knowledge and message discipline. Tossing out slogans or empty promises will expose fatal weaknesses to voters who still care.


On the other hand, this election will be decided by fewer than 10% of the likely voters, mostly independents. If those people don't happen to be watching the debates, it won't matter anyway.


Charlotte and Tampa both accomplished the main goal. Republicans are more committed than ever to removing President Obama from the White House, and Democrats are as committed as ever to keeping Governor Romney out!


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