The PJ Tatler

Which Convention Was More Successful?

There are many ways you can define “success” when it comes to assessing the conventions of the two major parties that just concluded. And there may be no objective answer to that question. Both conventions accomplished at least some of the goals they set out to do.

The GOP confab successfully introduced Paul Ryan to the American people and, to some extent, “humanized” Mitt Romney. But what about getting their basic ideas, agenda, and policy solutions across to the voter?

Here, neither side did very well, as Howard Gleckman, writing in the Christian Science Monitor, pointed out:

Of course, convention speeches are not supposed to be State of the Union laundry lists. They are intended to frame a candidate’s vision. But for that vision to mean anything, it needs to be buttressed by real policy. And that went missing at both conventions, though in very different ways.

Romney offered a big agenda. Tax reform. Entitlement reform. A radically smaller government. But in each case, Romney presented incomplete plans: Specific tax cuts without any of the difficult offsetting reductions in tax subsidies. A promise of smaller government without ever saying what programs he’d cut.

Obama, in contrast to both Romney and his own campaign four years ago, painted a very modest agenda. And even there, left out the details. The president often talks about playing the long game. This week, he played the small game.

Obama framed his second term in the context of five “goals”—expanding American manufacturing, becoming more self-reliant in energy production, improving education, preserving national security, and reducing the deficit. I’ll bet these promises have appeared in every platform of both political parties since at least the 1970s.

Like Romney and his convention last week, Democrats did a far better job talking about what’s wrong with the other guy’s vision than describing how their own would translate into real initiatives.

Outside of a few Washington wonks, does anyone really care? Most voters wouldn’t know a sequester from a Sylvester, but they can assess specific proposals using common sense. In that respect, generalized policy prescriptions of a kind found on a candidate’s website or in a party platform are usually good enough to get by.

What matters more is trust. With the massive complexity of government, the overwhelming majority of voters eyes would glaze over if either candidate talked in specifics about eliminating this subsidy, or cutting that program. What matters more to the individual voter is if they can trust the candidate to look out for their interests and the interests of the country.

Obama’s speech sounded more specific than Romney’s, but really wasn’t. Both men gave a good account of their vision for America and left the voter with a clear choice about which vision they would like to see implemented.

The Republican Convention was successful in framing the issue of Obama’s stewardship of the economy. The Democrats were successful in painting their opponent as an unacceptable alternative. Using those metrics, neither side gained an advantage.

If one had to choose a winner, it would have to be the Democrats simply because of the national media impact of Clinton’s speech and the very large TV audience that watched the president’s acceptance speech. But Romney shouldn’t fret. In a week, the conventions will be forgotten and the business of the campaign will overtake any temporary upswing for either candidate.