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What the Democrats Have to Show

Charles Ommanney/Reportage by Getty Images
Barack Obama and Bill Clinton at the Democratic National Convention after Clinton’s speech, September 5, 2012

The speech was designed as an overture to the fall campaign. Perhaps his edgier phrases would be developed into themes as Obama and other Democrats felt the brunt of the attack ads coming their way. In prime time, there were few hints of how he’d handle the struggle over Obamacare, which still polls poorly in states he needs. He never mentioned the Affordable Care Act by name. Instead, alluding to it obliquely, he told of “a little girl with a heart disorder in Phoenix who’ll get the surgery she needs because an insurance company can’t limit her coverage.” The policy of the other side, he suggested, was simply, “hope that you don’t get sick” if you can’t afford insurance.

Bill Clinton stayed on the point longer, offering more specifics, than the president who brought home the reform. “Soon,” he said, “the insurance companies, not the government, will have millions of new customers, many of them middle-class people with pre-existing conditions. And for the last two years, health care spending has grown under 4 percent for the first time in fifty years.” By the weekend Romney, who has pledged to repeal Obamacare as his first initiative, was saying he’d save the provisions that have already taken effect such as the one Clinton highlighted on preexisting conditions.

Maybe there was a lesson here. Repeal would still be one of the main consequences of an Obama defeat. How forcefully the Obama campaign will try to make that case is another matter. Will it follow the polls or, as happened when the president opted for the reform in the first place, fight what might become a losing battle? Will it take the offense and try to tell people what they stand to lose when mostly they don’t even know what they stand to gain? Not an easy choice.

As the one-liners accrued, the presentation turned personal. “While I’m very proud of what we’ve achieved together, I’m far more mindful of my own failings,” he said, going on to quote Lincoln. The quotation was apt and affecting, but the implied comparison of himself to the sixteenth president may have undermined what was meant as a display of humility. Moments later, still trying to reignite the movement he imagined himself to have led four years ago, he said: “We draw strength from our victories, and we learn from our mistakes.”

That “our” came across as an uncertain note, ambiguous in its meaning. Were the unspecified “mistakes” first-person plural or first-person singular? Had his supporters not been there for him when he needed them, as in the 2010 congressional elections? Or had he failed to communicate his need? Now they had to understand that the road would be longer and harder than they may have thought. He never had promised, he now said, that it would be “quick or easy.”

I tried to think of a winning candidate who promised a harder path. All that came to mind were losers: Adlai Stevenson’s “Let’s talk sense to the American people” a full sixty years ago and Walter Mondale’s candor about a tax hike.

Still, if erstwhile Obama followers were looking for an apology for overpromising on his part, they could find it there. They could also conclude that he’d been deepened by his time in the White House. In either case, his more urgent message was that the election was “a choice between two fundamentally different visions for the future.”

It’s also a choice between two fundamentally different views of Barack Obama. If he loses and his most significant initiatives are undone, his tenure may receive assessments even more mixed than it has gotten until now. If he wins, he’ll automatically be seen as a consequential president for reasons beyond the once-stunning fact of his color. Health care, the clean energy programs, and all the other reforms won’t be rolled back.

What the acceptance speech didn’t do was answer the Ryan question: How would the next four years be different? It didn’t do that in part because the answer so obviously hinges on the outcome of the congressional races. If Republicans retain the House and a blocking vote in the Senate with its archaic structure and rules—or win a majority there—it’s hard to see how the gridlock of which Obama complained might be eased.

Conceivably, such a prospect could serve as a spur for a Trumanesque attack on “Do Nothing” Republicans in Congress. But there seems to be a consensus among tacticians that a partisan plea from the head of the ticket to turn out the 2010 class of Tea Party Republicans could alienate independents. All politics being local, the president who once tried to hold himself above party will probably never go so far as to ask voters to give him a Democratic Congress again. The pledge to support Obama will have to be put across by local candidates where it may do some good, which isn’t everywhere.

In recent interviews, the president has been reduced to the wan hope that Republicans would read his reelection as a message from the American people “to get things done,” once “Mitch McConnell’s imperative of making me a one-term president is no longer relevant.” In Charlotte, he said he stood ready to reform the tax code and try again to negotiate a “grand bargain” on the basis of the bipartisan Simpson-Bowles commission’s report. What he couldn’t promise this time was that his victory would serve up the elixir to make the bargain go down.

“No party has a monopoly on wisdom,” he said, possibly for the thousandth time. In 2008 he seemed confident that he in his own person could transcend partisanship. Now he was saying the country must do it—a stirring call that left the Ryan question hanging.

—September 13, 2012

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