What the Democrats Have to Show

Barack Obama
Barack Obama; drawing by John Springs

Our political conventions have long since become TV shows with little suspense and an ever-expanding cast of media commentators functioning as a Greek chorus, telling us what to look for, what might or might not happen, how balefully the latest cycle of ambition and the duel for power is likely to turn out for the commonwealth. Though they tend to run as a herd, these toilers, reaching daily and hourly for fresh insights, save us from having to think for ourselves.

What fun there is in conventions is in their unanticipated moments—reinventions of the ritual, usually but not always scripted, that prove memorable. When Barack Obama landed in Charlotte to give his third big convention speech in eight years, he could expect to be compared both to the 2004 model Obama—a wiry, intense, out-of-nowhere state legislator with an arresting story and a gauzy vision—and to the 2008 model, the one in front of the styrofoam columns with his many promises of hope and change.

In Charlotte, none of that would be new; much of it would be considered shopworn. The Bank of America Stadium where he was first scheduled to speak, before thunderstorms threatened, would have evoked his quandary. It might as well have been called Bailout Park (after the Bush program Obama inherited along with some of the blame that attached to it in many minds, and an economy shedding jobs at a rate of 150,000 a week). Without a lot of attention paid to all he’d actually accomplished, he’d now nearly four years later been graded and stamped DISAPPOINTING, first by media consensus, then by his opponent, who, after months of snide remarks about the various ways in which this exotic creature failed to “understand” America—its enterprise and “exceptionalism”—simply embraced that more-in-sorrow verdict.

In Tampa, with a catch in his throat, Mitt Romney claimed to have nurtured a hope four years ago that Obama would succeed in mastering the worst financial crisis since the 1930s. Of course, Romney didn’t acknowledge the extreme lengths to which House and Senate Republicans went to ensure that Obama would do no such thing, resisting him with near unanimity on every major initiative touching on taxes and jobs, going so far last year as to risk another collapse by showing that they considered a federal default less risky and outrageous than an increase of the historically low tax rates on the upper one or two percent.

At moments like that, Obama often seemed to have been caught flatfooted by the gall of his opponents, unable to find plain language to do a Harry Truman and give ’em hell, irritated on occasion by the need to spell out obvious facts and knock down obvious distortions. His promise—that he held in his own person and temperament the ability to heal the partisan breach—was thus mocked and refuted at the outset by the barefaced resistance he confronted. The Republicans…

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