There was a time in America when political conventions were long, fractious and bitterly fought contests over ideas to shape the nation's future. "You shall not crucify this country on a cross of gold, etc., etc." Today's convention was not your father's William Jennings Bryan contest. Last week we saw two examples of the new, improved, idea-free convention. The attitude of the managers of the GOP convention reminded me of my old Brooklyn relatives: "You want facts? Buy an encyclopedia!" In Tampa it turned out to be all symbols and sincerity.
It wasn't simply the sameness of the speeches, nor their lack of specificity, but the fact that anger is a fuel quick to ignite which provides very little light. Anger also needs villains and heroes to keep it ginned up. The only villain available was President Obama and the delegates had been booing him in absentia for months. The problem was their hero was absent too.
Traditionally, you save your best performer for the last act, but the GOP lead-in was an incoherent actor and an empty chair. The symbology turned out to be that all of the chairs were empty too, devoid of ideas or passion.
The Romney campaign tried hard to hit its bullet points: it scraped up the few people of color it could find, featuring Condoleezza Rice, who would only be a winner if you believe the Iraq war was an American triumph.
A bigger bullet point was the GOP's inability to appeal to female voters. Their big gun was the candidate's wife, who gave a very nice speech. She was followed by several nice Mormon spokespersons who attested to the nice things Mitt had done for people. Next came several more nice people who testified to nice things Romney had done for them. Riveting, hmm?
The convention's last, best hope was for a full-throated presentation of the issues by Romney's hand-picked running mate, Congressman Ryan. Now was the moment to begin to hear impassioned chants from the delegates. Remember the 1960s and '70s? "What do we want?? Peace!!" (Or justice. Or whatever.) "When do we want it?? Now!!" But the chant for Paul Ryan might just as well have been, "What do we want?? Deficit reduction ... or small government ... or maybe, tort reform? When do we want it?? Pretty soon ... we'll let you know later."
Ryan also did his magical mathematical monotone act about the looming boom and doom of deficits, always maintaining his fiercely sincere choir-boy expression. "And so, my friends, we've got trouble and that starts with D..."
A few days later, in a different convention galaxy, somebody must have turned the lights on for the Democrats as Michelle Obama strode onto the stage. It was the beginning of a parade of exciting and appealing presenters, especially women such as Kathleen Sibelius, Elizabeth Warren, Debbie Wasserman Schultz, and there in spirit, Hillary Clinton.
We also watched men and women of every ethnicity, from the delightful Castro twin brothers from Texas to Cory Booker and Duval Patrick. In short, a rich mosaic of today's America. And tomorrow's!
The Republicans had carefully avoided any mention of military matters, skirting how you could slash the deficit but keep the defense budget in tact. The Democrats reversed their previous low profile with a fervent support for our veterans and our wounded warriors, which had been spearheaded so well by Michelle Obama and Joe Biden. They also were not a bit bashful about supporting military action, another dramatic change. When Joe Biden and John Kerry made reference to Osama bin Laden and the question was posed to the audience, "Does Osama Bin Laden think he's better off now than he was four years ago?" the audience responded with a resounding "no" and lots of triumphant laughter.
It must have been very hard for John McCain and Dick Cheney and the other chicken-hawks to watch this poaching on their previously private property: patriotism.
Of course, the question one always asks after a convention is, "Who got the bounce?" It is not unusual for a presidential candidate to get a temporary bounce of a couple of points in the polls if his convention was well received. But it is also not unusual for an unsuccessful candidate and his campaign to get no bounce at all.
In this case, the results were not ambiguous. Romney's convention brought him almost no bounce at all, and expressions of disappointment even from some of his supporters. The Democrats, whose convention was well-managed and well-articulated from beginning to end, got a pretty substantial bounce. That in itself might not mean too much but it seemed to indicate the inability on the part of the Romney people to get anything right.
The president has all the advantages and disadvantages of the incumbency. Problems can come flying at him (from Libya and Egypt) almost without any advance warning. The advantage for the challenger is that he can then jump on any of those events and accuse the administration of mishandling it. Unfortunately for the Republicans, watching Romney pounce is like watching your candidate fall down a flight of stairs. Which way the ball will bounce on election day no one knows, but as we approach, keep your eye on the ball. That would be good advice for Romney, too.