During the kerosene-lamp era, political conventions were magnificent festivals of “honest work and base trickery,” enlivened by delegates who could be “violent, vituperative and malignant,” as a Times account of the Republican Convention of 1880 put it. Well into the twentieth century, Presidential nominees were chosen at the Conventions, and they remained newsmaking extravaganzas. Television’s arrival heightened the drama: John F. Kennedy’s “New Frontier” speech at the Democratic Convention of 1960 thrilled broadcast audiences; the Chicago police bloodying protesters, live and in color, eight years later shocked them.
Then it all went flat. Good-government types spread the idea that the parties ought to nominate candidates through primary elections open to as many people as possible. The Democrats officially changed their nomination procedure in 1972 (the Republicans followed in 1976), and the Conventions became mostly irrelevant. But the tradition of free political airtime had been established, and admen honed in and fashioned the quadrennial infomercials we now endure.
Political journalists used to prowl Convention floors in search of scoops about backroom deals. Now they write cultural criticism of a sort that is normally aimed at “American Idol” contenders (who actually performed at both Conventions this year). Whose heartstring-pullers connected? Whose narrative cohered? Whose Twitter feed trended? By such measures, the Democrats’ tight, high-energy production in Charlotte last week clearly bested the Republicans’ undisciplined, tepid affair in Tampa the week before. Michelle Obama delivered a mesmerizing speech in prime time. Bill Clinton talked jobs and Medicare in analytic detail, while wearing a Bubba smile. For a Party that has been on the defensive since 2010, the vibe was resilient, even exuberant.
In Charlotte, the Democrats embraced the production values that the Republicans once monopolized: message discipline, clock management, and ego subordination (former Presidents excepted). They staged repetitious, unembarrassed salutes to the military. The Republicans’ allowing Clint Eastwood to improvise like an also-ran at a talent show, on their Convention’s most important night, only heightened the contrast.
The Democrats’ putative front-runner for 2016, Hillary Clinton, was barred, as Secretary of State, from attending her party’s Convention, so she could not become a distraction for the media or the Party faithful. (For good measure, she was sent to conduct diplomacy in East Timor.) In Tampa, the Republicans’ next-generation White House contenders, such as Governor Chris Christie, of New Jersey, and Senator Marco Rubio, of Florida, sold their own stories at length from the podium, diffusing the focus on the nominee, Mitt Romney, who needed all the clarifying attention he could get.
If the Conventions retain any authenticity, it lies in the group portraits that they offer of the parties’ activists. In Tampa, the faces were overwhelmingly white, not young, and surprisingly impassive. In Charlotte, there was color, youth, and tears. The country’s rising diversity will, in the long run, favor Democrats; since 1988, white voters have fallen from eighty-five per cent of the electorate to seventy-four per cent, and they will be a minority within three decades. This year, however, it is doubtful that youth and minority turnout can lift Obama, as they did four years ago. Fortunately for him, today’s Republicans seem clueless about how to filch dissatisfied Democratic voters. After two decades of talking about the construction of a Republican “big tent” that could attract a permanent voting majority, including more women and large numbers of Latinos, the Party has instead folded in on itself, inviting anti-immigrant activists and small-government ideologues to define a brittle agenda. In Tampa, Romney had nothing inspirational to say to voters of color.
He may yet win—the polls show a dead heat. The economy is still sluggish, and the number of jobs added in August was below expectations. But Obama remains competitive, owing to factors that can’t be described in statistics. Last Thursday, on the Democrats’ closing night, threatening weather forced the President to abandon plans to speak in a vast sports stadium, as he had in Denver in 2008. It was a good thing, since, in many ways, the subject of Obama’s speech was the recalibration of his own ambition. He began, as he often does, half-mocking the campaign in which he is a leading strategist. He said that Presidential campaigning can be “silly,” adding, “The truth gets buried in an avalanche of money and advertising.” He joked, “If you’re sick of hearing me approve this message, believe me, so am I.” Gradually, and at first dutifully, he assembled his narrative, one about inclusion and shared responsibility in hard times. “When all is said and done, when you pick up that ballot to vote, you will face the clearest choice of any time in a generation,” he said. It is a choice between “two fundamentally different visions for the future.”
The President’s attacks on Republican tax-cutting orthodoxy and Medicare-privatization plans were effective, if not new. The plan he described to create a million manufacturing jobs during a second term sounded sketchy. He declared forthrightly, “Climate change is not a hoax. More droughts and floods and wildfires are not a joke. They’re a threat to our children’s future.” But he mentioned no new plan to enact vitally needed price incentives to discourage the use of carbon-heavy fuels, something that the Administration tried to do in 2009, and now still looks beyond political hope.
Ah, hope. If a politician wins office on a campaign of ground-shifting slogans and then disappoints many of his followers, he can hardly evade accountability. Obama offered a defense familiar from epics in which master knights dispense wisdom to frustrated apprentices. True hope and change was never his to bestow, he explained; rather, it resides within all of us. “You see, the election four years ago wasn’t about me. It was about you. My fellow-citizens, you were the change.” But the President did offer a powerful response to the dystopian individualism of the Ayn Rand-influenced Republicans and their leader, Paul Ryan, the Vice-Presidential nominee, by invoking “citizenship, a word at the very heart of our founding, at the very essence of our democracy.” He continued:
We, the people, recognize that we have responsibilities as well as rights; that our destinies are bound together; that a freedom which only asks what’s in it for me, a freedom without a commitment to others, a freedom without love or charity or duty or patriotism, is unworthy of our founding ideals, and those who died in their defense.
In high definition, Obama’s lined face and gray hair said all that was necessary about his education in office. Yet his voice was strong, and he and his party have now framed a clear choice, less about Obama versus Romney than about the perilous future of the American commons.