By Elvin Lim
The Democrats are enjoying a little bump from their convention last week, but it had little to do with Barack Obama and a lot to do with Bill Clinton. The reason why Clinton’s speech worked was because he was specifically charged to address the substance of his speech to independents and older white males. He was very successful in making his speech appear reasonable, while delivering very partisan conclusions. As such, the speech was becomingly presidential.
Obama’s speech on the other hand was predictable and tired. He seemed not to have recognized that he was in a very different position than four years ago. The language of empathy and hope falls on deaf ears when the speaker’s credibility has been tarnished. What his research team needs is a catalogue of facts, such as those presented by Bill Clinton, for making the case that the administration has made some progress on various fronts ahead of the presidential debates next month. Unlike Romney, Obama must walk a tightrope of appearing presidential when still appealing to his base. Facts, not emotions, are his best allies this time.
In the end, for better or for worse, elections are now about persons, not parties. Candidates make all kinds of promises and voters have to make their judgment calls by triangulating imperfect indices of credibility. This is why negative ads can be so damaging. But so can strategic endorsements. One of the most powerful moments in the Republican convention was when Ann Romney shed light on some of Mitt Romney’s private acts of charity.
The rest of the Democratic convention was uninspiring. The choreography of minorities conspicuously put on display and the overplaying of the abortion issue crowded out precious time that could have been spent on putting a positive spin on Obama’s record and restoring his credibility. The choice of North Carolina as the convention site was possibly also based on hubris. Most polls since May have put North Carolina in Romney’s column. The Democrats may have done better with a more defensive strategy and held their convention in states like Colorado or Virginia.
Looking ahead, the electoral dynamics are likely to change if for one reason alone. Now that Romney is the official nominee, he can dip into the RNC’s funds to add to his already formidable war-chest. He may yet be able to make up the advantage Obama enjoys in the electoral college map.
Elvin Lim is Associate Professor of Government at Wesleyan University and author of The Anti-Intellectual Presidency, which draws on interviews with more than 40 presidential speechwriters to investigate this relentless qualitative decline, over the course of 200 years, in our presidents’ ability to communicate with the public. He also blogs at www.elvinlim.com and his column on politics appears on the OUPblog regularly.