This Republican convention didn't quite match the Pat Buchanan culture war level of entertainment, but it was close. From the truly odd juxtaposition of the Ann Romney soft and sweet pitch followed immediately by the me, me, me blowhard Chris Christie speech to the bizarro angry old white guy performance of Clint Eastwood getting more attention than Romney last night, this has been a special convention indeed. But in addition to the entertainment value, it did make apparent the battle lines in this election. This campaign will ultimately turn on 4 major things: the battle over Bain, the debate over Medicare, and the questions over who is to blame for this economy and how best to fix it. As a loyal Democrat, I am really pleased as to the strategic decisions the Romney camp has made on Bain and Medicare, because I think we will in the end win those debates decisively. The questions on the economy are much tougher, and I think the Obama team may need to make some adjustments in their strategy on that critical question.
Let me start with Bain, a favorite topic of mine. Romney did as good a job as he could do in describing his work at Bain and making the case for why it was a positive thing. Here's the weird thing: I couldn't be more delighted that he did. I'm pleased for 2 reasons. First, the fact that he spent so much time on it and worked so hard to make his case confirms that our side's attacks on Bain have been striking body blows. Second, and even better, it means that this battle over Bain is going to be fully engaged by their campaign and the media as well as by our side. The Romney camp made the calculated decision that they couldn't gloss over the Bain experience and keep it at the broad generic level. Instead, Romney made a full-throated defense of his reign as CEO. That means that the Obama campaign and the progressive infrastructure will be able to fully engage this debate, and that the media will have to cover and examine it. And that is a wonderful thing.
It's wonderful because when you look under the hood even for a moment, Bain stinks. What Romney did there, and the merciless greedy values it shows him to have, should be fully aired out and examined by the media. Our side has never been bothered by Romney's success in business, it was how he ran his business and made his money. We aren't bothered by the fact that some of the investments failed, we are appalled by the way Romney loaded these companies up with debt, manipulated the tax code to make big short term profits even if it hurt the companies involved, took big management fees whether the companies involved were doing well or not, and screwed the workers while walking away with big money even when the businesses involved went down the tubes. Bain and Mitt made huge profits even off most of the companies that went bankrupt on their watch, and they did it while doing mass layoffs and out-sourcing, cutting the wages of those workers who were left, and stripping workers' of their pensions and health coverage. They got rich- really, really rich- because the workers got poorer, and they got profits in the form of tax code manipulations and management fees whether the companies did well or not. If you want to read yet another great explanation of how Bain made its money (and there are many), I highly recommend Matt Taibibi's truly wonderful piece in Rolling Stone, which should be required reading for every reporter covering this debate.
So when Mitt is bragging about the companies which were success stories, don't forget a few little things Mitt left out of his speech last night. The first is that they were success stories in spite of the huge debt and management fees Bain saddled them with- the fact that they made it was a lucky thing. Secondly, they weren't success stories for a great many of their workers, many of whom lost their jobs and pensions and health coverage- and even for those who didn't, frequently had jobs where the average pay wasn't exactly sterling. Finally, remember that the failures were usually failures precisely because of Bain's vulture capitalism.
So let's have the Bain debate. The more voters know, the better off Democrats are. Which is exactly the case with the Medicare issue as well. In that case, the Romney-Ryan campaign team is well aware of that fact. It is very telling that neither Romney nor Ryan, the intellectual architect of the Republican proposals on Medicare, said a word about their actual plan. Beyond their bogus, thoroughly debunked attacks on the Obama "Medicare cuts", and beyond pounding their chests saying they "wanted this debate", Romney like Ryan before him did not say a single word to explain or defend argue for their proposal. As I wrote about yesterday, their strategy is to keep saying as loud as they can that they want this debate precisely so that people won't notice that they never want to actually have the debate. But by forcing them to speak to the specifics, by explaining exactly what they proposed and what we are for in contrast, we will win this debate by a wide margin. The Medicare coupon idea, where you take your inadequate amount of money and try to negotiate individually with a huge insurance company that may be the only one that serves your market, would be a disaster for most people, and when voters hear about it, they understand that.
The Romney-Ryan strategy on Medicare is a lot like their strategy on discussing their economic ideas: namely, proclaim loudly that they have a plan for jobs and growth and the economy without saying much at all about what that plan does. Romney and Ryan literally spent more time in their speeches talking about having a plan and putting the Democrats "on notice" that they wanted to debate their plan and the fact that their plan would produce all these miracle cures for everything wrong with America than they did actually talking about their plan. The portion of Romney's speech that was about his plan was 5 very general points discussed in a grand total of 11 sentences. (We're going to promote trade! We're going to help small businesses by repealing Obamacare and not taxing or regulating them!) Ryan, the great Republican policy maven, said even less about actual policy.
They aren't saying much because they really, really don't want people to know the details, because they know that when people hear the details in focus groups, voters are generally appalled. Which brings me to the last great debate on which this campaign will turn. I am convinced that the more voters hear about Bain and Medicare and other specific policy proposals, the more they will dislike Romney and Ryan. The thing the Republicans have left in the arsenal, though, is as big a weapon as you can have: the bad economic times we have been living through. People are in a foul mood about it, and they have good reason to be. The Republicans did a very effective job at the convention of pounding away on that central issue, and hammering away at the theme that Obama is trying to blame Bush despite not having fixed things. It's undoubtedly the Republicans most dangerous weapon, their "big one", because voters want to (a) level the blame somewhere, and (b) have someone fix it. On the ways to fix it, Democrats clearly have the edge, with the entire Republican convention as the best evidence: talk as little about our actual proposals as humanly possible. But on the who is to blame thing, there is a real danger that Republicans will win that argument.
The main place from a message perspective I would fault the Obama campaign is that they have so far failed to tell the story of why this economy has been in such big trouble. There have been plenty of generic references to the failed policies of the past, but I would argue that to seal the deal and win this election, Obama needs to explain to the American public who caused this mess and who is holding us back from recovery: Wall Street and the big special interests who have an iron grip on the throat of our economic system. It has the twin virtues of being completely believable to the American public and completely true. Obama needs to tell that story, and he needs to remind people that the same mega-companies who caused this mess are the exact ones backing Romney-Ryan and personified by Bain Capital and the Romney-Ryan budget.
Every election comes down to a series of big debates. In this one there are 4 big ones that everything will turn on: what does Romney's tenure at Bain say about him, which side has the better Medicare plan, why are we having such tough economic times, and how do we get out of this mess. I think that right now, we Democrats have an excellent chance at winning on Bain, Medicare, and plans for the future. But if we don't win on why we are in such trouble, I fear it could pull everything else down. I think Obama can win that debate, but he needs to tell the story of how the Wall Street crowd and the wealthy special interests- Romney and Ryan's buddies- are choking our economy.