MARCHING ORDERS

09.05.12

Peter Beinart: The Democratic Convention’s Message Discipline

The economy’s tough and the election tight. But Obama’s team ran circles around the GOP on night one of their convention. By Peter Beinart

We’re only one day into the Democratic convention but this much is already clear: So far, the Democrats are better at this.

That’s not an ideological or moral observation. It’s a professional one. Team Romney let their keynoter go 15 minutes before mentioning their candidate’s name. Julián Castro mentioned Barack Obama after two. Team Romney put their most affecting speakers—the folks in Romney’s church—on before the networks tuned in. Team Romney let Paul Ryan give an eat-your-broccoli speech about cutting government spending—including Medicare—and then largely ignored the theme in Romney’s own speech the following night.

Night one of the Democratic convention, by contrast, was tightly organized around a clear message: Romney isn’t like you. The attacks were personal, sometimes sarcastic, sometimes even verging on nativist (who knew Democrats hated Switzerland so much). But they hit Romney where he’s vulnerable. There’s a reason the GOP used to nominate folks like Nixon and Reagan, who had working-class roots. It’s because many voters—not all of them left wing—really do consider Republicans a little too detached from the suffering of ordinary Americans. Most Americans respect businessmen; they recognize that they play an important role in producing wealth. But they also want the government to act as a check on businessmen’s single-minded pursuit of wealth. The GOP used to better understand that. Because of their own backgrounds and personalities, Nixon, Reagan and even George W. Bush connected personally to working-class voters (at least white ones) in a way that partially overcame the GOP’s image problem. But Mitt Romney has not, and will not. In different ways, every Democratic speaker honed in on that vulnerability. And then Michelle Obama masterfully used it to reintroduce America to her husband. The entire subtext of her speech was: Barack Obama and I are like you; we come from families like yours; we’ve lived lives like yours. We’re the un-Romneys.

The presidential race remains close. But the Obama campaign has what the Clinton campaign had in 1992 and the Bush campaign in 2004: clarity of message. It’s a message that makes Romney’s policy views a function of his biography. And in these bad economic times, the Democrats are using it to achieve a kind of political jujitsu. Usually, the president who presides over a lousy economy gets accused of being out of touch. That’s what happened to Herbert Hoover, Jimmy Carter, and George H.W. Bush. But by relentlessly depicting Romney as a detached plutocrat, the Obama campaign has turned that traditional narrative on its head. Notice how Michelle Obama and Rahm Emanuel emphasized that Obama reads 10 letters from ordinary Americans every night. The point was that even if not all of Obama’s policies have worked, at least he cares. 

The attacks were personal, sometimes sarcastic, sometimes even verging on nativist. But they hit Romney where he’s vulnerable.

It wasn’t until the 1996 campaign, when I saw them go up against Bob Dole, that I truly appreciated the Clinton campaign’s political skill. We’re seeing the same today. Team Obama didn’t beat Hillary Clinton by accident. The president and his top advisers play this game very well and very tough. The Romney campaign is not awful. But so far, at least, it’s not in the same league.