In less than two months Americans will write the final chapter of the recurring reality show we once called the presidential election. Former Massachusetts Governor Willard “Mitt” Romney emerged from testy GOP Smackdown primaries with his haircut intact. President Barack Obama didn’t have a Democrat opponent, but faced a tougher job: He had to govern during the run-up to the conventions.
Now the conventions are over, and it’s our turn to cast a pre-vote of sorts. Just how well – as TV events – did the parties establish their candidates and focus their messages for November?
To be clear, this Smackdown will not make value judgments on politics or tell you how we think you should vote. That’s your job to figure out, if indeed, you intend to be among the 50-58 percent of Americans who will likely cast a ballot this year. Instead, our two cents will be spent analyzing the respective conventions and measuring what organizers did to meet their needs in reaching beyond their support base. Strategy is crucial, with pre-convention polling showing a virtual dead heat.
Final results won’t be in until Election Day. The Republicans held their convention first. For identification purposes, they are the challenging party.
The RNC arrived in Tampa, Florida intent on stressing several critical themes: Their candidate, Mitt Romney, a Mormon, is warm, kind, giving and prayerful. His running mate, Paul Ryan, is a younger, Roman Catholic version of himself. Ryan authored the economic plan the party promises will cut spending, reduce the national debt, create jobs and realign medical care, among other goals.
Equally important for Republicans: convincing the undecided that President Obama failed on his own, and four more years won’t change that. They identified crucial constituents for special attention on TV: women, Latinos, African-Americans.
The GOP chose Republican-friendly North Florida for its convention but could not foresee Hurricane Isaac.
The Defending Champion
Democrats meeting in Charlotte, North Carolina aimed a different pitch to the undecided. The nation, they argued, is showing signs of economic recovery despite unrelenting opposition by House Republicans, and from Senate Republicans whose numbers are enough to make their opposition stick. The President cares about more than saving his political neck.
This convention bent over backward to showcase issues either absent or opposed at the GOP event (Afghanistan, same-sex marriage, women’s control over their health care and reproductive rights). Since the Dems have an incumbent president, they were able to choose their spots in reintroducing Mr. Obama, spending as much time as they needed to portray his leadership in a favorable light.
Like the Republicans, they clearly played to their strengths. That was apparent in how both parties staged their conventions.
Bad weather played a big role at both events. Hurricane Isaac struck its most destructive blow west of Florida, but grazed Tampa with enough rain and uncertainty that Republicans decided to compress events and trim a day off their convention schedule. Really, that didn’t hurt.
The DNC moved President Obama and his acceptance speech into the Time Warner Cable Arena after the threat of thundershowers raised safety concerns at the Bank of America football stadium. Republicans said he couldn’t fill the stadium; Democrats brushed that off.
Republicans had the larger hill to climb. The candidate’s wife, Ann Romney, may have done the heaviest lifting: She needed to give dimension to a man very few know well. Her convention address touched on domestic themes of family, faith, home, and the man she married after meeting at a high school dance 47 years ago. “…Warm and loving and patient,” she described him. It was touching and effective, and so was the testimony of a retired firefighter, who said Mitt Romney wrote out a will for the man’s dying son and gave a eulogy at the boy’s funeral.
Then came Paul Ryan. The running mate trotted out his good-looking wife and kids and poured lava on the president’s entire economic approach. Despite lofty promises, Congressman Ryan said the administration stalled the economy, lost jobs, pushed the national debt to 16 trillion dollars, and created unaffordable health options for the elderly and poor. His attack was itself attacked by pundits and fact-checkers in the coming days. They mainly ignored his larger points to focus on the inaccuracies that riddled his speech.
Republicans peppered the convention with speakers designed to widen the appeal to their soft constituencies, and the TV camerawork – excellent at both events – caught it all. They presented female office-holders, and the African-American man who pushed Mr. Obama’s candidacy four years earlier at the Democrat’s convention in Denver. They gave prominent play to Florida’s Cuban-American U.S. Senator and rising political star, Marco Rubio.
There is no easy way to describe Clint Eastwood stumbling through a routine featuring an empty chair sitting in for the President. This bit earned knowing laughs or jaw-dropping disdain (depending on whose living room you sat in). One thing is certain: We can no longer dispute the notion there are very few natural ad-libbers in life. Even if, like most of us, you’re a strong fan of Eastwood’s, actors need writers, and we saw living proof of that in his awkward display.
Mr. Romney did much better than Dirty Harry. His address weaved a narrative connecting love of country and freedom. He squarely tied a faltering American Experience to the man he would replace: “I wish President Obama had succeeded because I want America to succeed. But his promises gave way to disappointment and division.”
One week later, Democrats arrived in Charlotte – in larger numbers, due to convention rules. For veteran convention-watchers this group was reliably noisy, enthusiastic and comically overburdened with convention knick-knacks. For those seeking celebrity and continuity, they offered up Scarlett Johansson, Eva Longoria, Ashley Judd, Caroline Kennedy, Congressman John Lewis, former Representative Gabrielle Giffords.
First Lady Michelle Obama provided the opening night highlight. Passionate, sparkling and engaging, she was miles better than the address she gave four years ago in Denver. Mrs. Obama effectively “warmed up” perceptions of the President with a portrait of a devoted husband and father who feels deeply for all Americans.
The Democrats’ convention may be best-remembered for Bill Clinton. The former president nominated Barack Obama and landed a series of rhetorical body-blows that proved he hadn’t lost a step since becoming America’s most appreciated president since Ronald Reagan. Over the course of 50 minutes, Mr. Clinton took dead aim at the President’s GOP detractors : “We left him a total mess, but he hasn’t cleaned it up fast enough, so fire him and put us back in.” Mr. Clinton had choice words for Paul Ryan, who criticized the president’s proposal to cut $716 billion from Medicare, while Mr. Ryan’s own budget proposal cut the same amount: “You gotta give him one thing. It takes some brass to attack a guy for doing what you did.” The cameras ate this up. President Obama was most likely thrilled he didn’t have to immediately follow Mr. Clinton at the podium.
Instead, Mr. Obama spoke the next night, following a spirited address by Vice President Biden, who emphatically repeated his own big TV statement that “Osama bin Laden is dead, and General Motors is alive.”
The party squeezed off a little more TV mileage in having the First Lady introduce President Obama. His considerable rhetorical skills were set at full-burn, and I’ll let you process for yourselves what he said and how he laid out the issues. How he looked is appropriate for comment here. The music was insistent, and adoring Dems gave Mr. Obama the sort of sendoff envisioned by the DNC’s convention organizers.
Can we decide which was the superior TV event here? Easily.
Neither side avoided some withering commentary: The GOP had no former President on hand to lend a certain gravitas, and it showed. (George H. W. Bush was reportedly too ill to attend, and W stayed with him. They appeared on video.) As a result, Republicans had no heavy-hitter even remotely comparable to Mr. Clinton to pitch their cause. For their part, the Dems invited open bewilderment by omitting “God” and references to Jerusalem from the party plank. Mr. Obama wanted them restored and those words were reinserted only after an embarrassing floor vote that left the convention chairman, Los Angeles Mayor Antonio Villaraigosa, twisting in the wind. And we saw all of it on TV.
All that is background music. On the main stage, the GOP identified its needs and hit the home stretch with a distinct message, a clearer idea about the candidates, and a tiny bump in the standings – at least until the Democrats got rolling. For their part, the incumbent party successfully staged a convention with distinct high points every night, featuring more significant figures in the current political context. Really, who will remember anything John Boehner said, compared to Gabrielle Giffords struggling to recite the Pledge of Allegiance? Ann Romney was effective, but Michelle Obama was electric. And like him or hate him, President Clinton’s address will earn a place in Historic Convention Speeches. Which is why the Democrats, pressing the advantages of their incumbency, win this Smackdown for staging the more effective convention.