Look Out!

DNC Preview: The Democrats’ Convention Trap

What should be a celebration of the president’s accomplishments will instead be a minefield.

Joe Raedle / Getty Images

They’re caught in a trap. And it’s a trap they built. (Yes, they did build it. Nobody else made it happen.) As the 2012 Democratic National Convention nears, I do not envy Team Obama. They have to escape from the narrative trap they’ve built.

Recent tradition dictates that the Democratic National Convention falls second on the calendar since a Democrat is the incumbent, which offers some advantages. Though the power of the office and the timing may give Democrats a bigger bully pulpit, President Obama also now bears the blame that goes with it: more people disapprove than approve of the president’s job performance.

Having been in this same position when I worked for President Bush in 2004, I feel their pain. We were in the odd position of arguing, “Things are pretty screwed up, so stay the course.” It’s tough to get the messaging right. You want four more years, but voters are asking: “Why? What have you done to deserve it? And what are you going to do?”

The political parties espouse two obviously different philosophies, neither right nor wrong. Republicans believe in individual achievement for the good of the whole. Democrats believe in collective achievement for the good of the individual. But right now, individuals are collectively hurting. And the Democrats are in power. That’s a mighty big challenge to overcome.

And following a very successful Republican National Convention, there are even more.

Finding the real front line. With the 15 minutes of fame gained by Todd Akin on the right and Sandra Fluke on the left, Democrats thought the battle lines were drawn. A “war on women” was being waged by Republicans, they charged. Funny thing is, the GOP tunneled right under that front line. The GOP convention celebrated the success of women, from Ann Romney, Condi Rice, Susana Martinez, Sher Valenzuela, and Mia Love to Paul Ryan’s 78-year-old mother, Betty. And the economy, not social issues, was the primary focus.

Avoiding the plague. High-profile Democrats are staying half a world away from the convention. Everyone loves to be around a winner. The converse is also true. And that’s not a good sign for President Obama.

Looking forward. How can a party go forward when it is looking backward? The convention in Charlotte will feature Jimmy Carter and Bill Clinton. The GOP showed a deeper, stronger back bench that seems to be missing this year on the Democratic side of the aisle.

Singing the same song. The old ideas haven’t worked very well. Will there be any real, new ideas?

Fighting faux foes. The real battle: the economy. Better lose the Greek columns this time. Voters don’t want to be reminded of Greece’s economy.

“Sí, se puede.” But has it been done? Can Democrats successfully position Julian Castro against Marco Rubio and Ted Cruz? Democrats currently have a real advantage with Hispanics. Can they keep the margin wide enough to push Dems over the top?

Ignoring the uninvited elephant in the room. The national debt will likely cross the $16 trillion threshold during the Democrats’ convention, an uninvited guest which will likely be ignored.

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Believing in miracles. The oceans are still rising, and the earth has not healed. Even Democrats are going to be skeptical of dramatic promises. What can Obama say to inspire, yet keep it real enough to be believed?

The hardest thing for Democrats is how to change the recipe so the convention doesn’t just look like a rehash of 2008. How do they get voters to tune in? And to believe again? How do they get out of the trap? It’s a tall order. But Barack Obama has surprised us before.