Wednesday, September 26, 2012

The speech

There is some talk that political party conventions have outlived their usefulness in terms of the national conversation. There is no drama at them any more, as everything presented is as tightly scripted as an infomercial -- in some cases, more so. Let's do away with them, the argument goes, approve the nominees electronically, and move on to the campaign.

That talk may have come to an end this year, at least for now.

I was talking today with a political insider about the subject today. We both agreed that despite all of the noise and posturing that had taken places during those few days in Tampa and those few days in Charlotte, something had cut through the buzz and made a powerful statement that changed the course of the election. In other words, to use the cliche of the moment, "a game-changer."

That would be Bill Clinton's speech during the Democratic convention.

Much of America was more or less split into two camps going into the conventions. We were in Fox News Nation or MSNBC Nation, to use shorthand. The election figured to be won in those eight to 10 percent that wasn't paying attention before. President Obama had lost some of his popularity, but some voters weren't sure if they ready to hand the keys to the White House over to Mitt Romney.

Then Clinton spoke. Within an hour, the argument behind the Republicans' attempt to win the Presidency was in shreds. The main argument has been mentioned here before, that the Bush Administration featured tax cuts and deregulation and the result was a financial mess. Why would we go back there? Clinton had covered a little of that ground in a very effective television commercial for Obama, but this was amplified. Along those lines, Clinton wondered how Republicans planned to reduce the federal debt when they talked about lowering taxes and raising defense spending.

There were other areas mentioned, such as a change in direction in foreign policy, and universal health care. Obama and his team haven't been good at defending these actions, but Clinton raised the issues nicely. The ex-President also attacked the Republicans' effort to do anything but stonewall Obama's efforts to pass legislation, perhaps noticing that Congress has an approval rating of about 13 percent right now. You get the idea.

The tide started to turn that night. Many people were watching, but others read about the speech the next day. Or heard friends, neighbors and pundits talk about it. Or watched highlights on line.

Where are we now in the election? Obama has a good-sized (at least five points) lead, according to the polls, in most of the swing states. Ohio's economy is doing well, thanks to the auto bailout, and the Republicans' ideas on Medicare aren't too popular in Florida. That makes the electoral math extremely tough for Romney, who hasn't had a particularly good September in other ways either. You might have heard about that taped fund-raising speech from earlier in the year.

Republicans, many of whom violently disagree with Obama on many issues, figured the President would be relatively easy to beat this year no matter who ran. Times are not good. But they nominated someone who has done little but come across as a "bored, rich guy" most of the time. His attacks come off as less than sincere, as if he's almost too good a person the rest of the time to put his heart into it.

And Romney always has been in a tough spot. He sprinted to the right in order to win the nomination, even though he didn't generate much enthusiasm. But that didn't leave him much cover for a general election that would be decided in the relative middle. (Then again, think Newt Gingrich or Rick Santorum would have done better?)

Yes, something could happen in the coming weeks, with the debates an obvious starting point. But with every passing day, Obama's reelection seems more likely. It's another reminder that a simple speech really can move mountains.

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