I crank out post after post every day and I think I know what I'm talking about, but I watch these conventions and I feel I'm the wrong species -- I have the wrong reaction to everything. I thought the president gave a fine speech last night -- maybe not as clever as Bill Clinton's (but also not as wearyingly long), and obviously not as endearing as his wife's (but they were trying to do two different things anyway). I thought he made a strong case for a left (or at least left-centrist) governing philosophy and for the awfulness of the other guys' philosophy. I saw excerpts beforehand that had me worrying that it would be a downer like his inaugural address, but I thought it turned out to be a hopeful, at times rousing speech.
But what the hell do I know? At the Republican convention I thought Chris Christie solidly connected (at least with the base and with lout-loving swing voters), only to wake up and find out he'd laid an egg. I thought Ann Romney's speech was lousy and generic -- well, conventional wisdom has mostly come around on that one, but at first it was praised as a successful (oh, crap, I can't even bear to type this word again) "humanizing" effort.
As for the president last night:
The speech came, by and large, as a disappointment to political journalists and other campaign junkies. We have heard almost all of it before. The speech was probably aimed at undecided voters, who spend almost no time following politics. They received the paint-by-numbers outline of the election choice.And that was from Jonathan Chait, who sure ain't voting for Romney.
But what's wrong with laying out the basic Democratic philosophy of governance for undecided, low-info voters? It needs doing. It needs doing every day, and Obama hasn't done enough of it. It's a necessary response to the 24/7 distortion of the notion of affirmative government, the portrayal of any intervention apart from war, even the ones we know and like and rely on, as parasitical and life-threatening to the Republic. You have to keep doing this, you have to keep explaining why non-military government programs exist at all, for the same reason you have to do pest control in the New York subways -- because the rats keep coming, and their behavior never changes.
And you have to do it even though you can never gain the advantage, because Republicans will always distort what you said, even what you just said. Here's Peggy Noonan writing about the convention:
There was the relentless emphasis on Government as Community, as the thing that gives us spirit and makes us whole. But government isn't what you love if you're American, America is what you love. Government is what you have, need and hire. Its most essential duties -- especially when it is bankrupt -- involve defending rights and safety, not imposing views and values. We already have values.Here's David Brooks:
At its base, this is a party with a protective agenda, not a change agenda -- dedicated to defending government in all its forms.Do you think government is "the thing that gives us spirit and makes us whole"? Is it "what you love"? Does it impose your views and values? Do you really believe in "defending government in all its forms"? Does Barack Obama?
That's the caricature -- the unkillable Republican caricature, relentlessly pounded into our heads every hour of the day by hundreds of right-wing yammerers. Now here's what President Obama actually said about that:
We insist on personal responsibility and we celebrate individual initiative. We're not entitled to success. We have to earn it. We honor the strivers, the dreamers, the risk-takers who have always been the driving force behind our free enterprise system -- the greatest engine of growth and prosperity the world has ever known.The right-wing response to this is "LA LA LA I CAN'T HEAR YOU." The right-wing response is the One-Drop Theory of government: if you believe government is the solution to any problem, you believe government is the solution to every problem; if you don't hate government, you're madly in love with it; if it's not "FREEDOM!!1!1," it's socialism, indistinguishable from China under Mao or Cuba under Castro.
But we also believe in something called citizenship -- a word at the very heart of our founding, at the very essence of our democracy; the idea that this country only works when we accept certain obligations to one another, and to future generations.
If paint-by-numbers gets an alternate view across to a few people who still haven't been worn down by this decades-long propaganda assault, then paint, Barack, paint.