Party conventions in the United States are rallies for the faithful. Three days of speeches and pageantry are crafted to move from one emotional peak to the next, to fire up the troops, and provide the intellectual and policy framework for the campaign that will follow. Putting the conventions back to back makes clear the contrast in the Republican and Democratic parties’ messages and focus. But for the Democrats, like the Republicans before them, the key theme is the choice that voters will make in the ballot box in November.
For U.S. President Barack Obama, the Democratic nominee, the message is simple. He urged supporters and undecided voters to give him another term to finish a job not yet complete. He also called on them to embrace his vision of a country that works together as one, in contrast to the GOP depiction of a nation of rugged, self-reliant individualists. The outcome of November’s vote is now likely to depend on the ability of each party to rally its faithful. The U.S. electorate continues to be deeply divided, with neither candidate getting much of a bounce from its convention. That means the turnout of the base is key — and a small number of undecided voters in a few swing states will receive unrelenting attention in the remaining nine weeks before the election.
The Democrats certainly rallied the base. Political professionals and pundits alike applauded the passion and power of the leading speakers at the Democratic Party convention. Most agreed that even Mr. Obama, a spellbinding speaker at his best, was eclipsed by the performances of his wife Michelle on the opening night and the nomination speech by former President Bill Clinton on the second night of the conclave. It is no small measure of Mr. Clinton’s gifts that more people watched his speech than the season opener of the National Football League, a game that featured two of the most popular teams in the country, one of which, the New York Giants, was last year’s Super Bowl champion.
Other, less high-profile speakers also galvanized the crowd, either beating up on the GOP ticket or playing booster for Mr. Obama. While highlighting the party’s diversity, the speakers hammered home three messages. The first was the assertion that Mr. Obama’s chief concern is individuals, while Mr. Mitt Romney, the GOP nominee, is focused on the bottom line. This line of attack plays up the high favorability ratings that the president enjoys, in contrast to those of Mr. Romney. It also, however, obliges voters to focus on economic issues and this runs a risk for the president as it pushes him to defend an economic performance that has disappointed — a disappointment that was underscored the day after the Democratic convention closed. Statistics showed another lackluster month of job growth. While the Democratic message is that Mr. Obama cares, the GOP response of late has been that that is not enough: No matter how well intentioned the president, fixing the economy demands someone who better understands business and that is Mr. Romney’s strong suit.
Mr. Romney’s familiarity with business featured prominently in the second line of attack at the Democratic convention — that the GOP nominee is out of touch with the concerns of ordinary Americans. Reports of offshore bank accounts, elevators for his automobiles, multimillion-dollar house renovations all serve to distance him from the middle-class Americans whose votes he must obtain to prevail in November.
The third line of attack, remarkably enough, concerns foreign policy. Remarkably, because historically Democrats have been seen as soft on foreign affairs. National security in particular has traditionally been a GOP stronghold. But Mr. Obama has established a powerful reputation in this area — the killing of Osama bin Laden, called by then Secretary of Defense Robert Gates “the most courageous call” of any president he had worked with, solidified those credentials — and Mr. Romney’s forays into foreign policy have been marked by gaffes, such as his disparaging of British preparations for the Olympics, and the failure to mention Afghanistan or U.S. troops in his convention speech.
Ultimately, however, Mr. Obama’s re-election rests on a case for the future. It is not enough to say that the job is as yet undone; American voters know that. The question is what will he do in another four-year term? At the convention, the campaign identified three priorities in a second Obama administration. They are: the creation of 1 million manufacturing jobs in four years; cutting oil imports in half by 2020; and cutting in half the growth of college tuition costs over the next decade. Unsurprisingly, the particulars on how to get to each goal are thin, even if the objectives are familiar.
Hanging over all economic ambitions is the need to get the country’s fiscal house in order. That ultimately depends on the president, whoever he is, finding common ground with Congress and coming up with a plan that cuts spending and raises revenue. While virtually everyone knows that deal must raise taxes and cut programs, the details remain elusive. The question for the U.S. is whether politicians will acknowledge the need for compromise after the November elections, for no single party is likely to take control of the White House, the House and the Senate. Indeed, the sharpness of the choices among presidential candidates may make compromise even tougher — each party is likely to have victories to claim as a mandate to pursue its own vision and its losses be damned.