By all objective measures, the prose and delivery of Obama’s convention speech last night were excellent. If its intended purpose was to unify the Democrat Party and reconstitute the liberal base turnout that benefited Obama in 2008, this speech was likely a success. But if this speech was designed to slow the bleed of moderates and white blue-collar voters from the party, it was completely disjointed from the reality starring those voters in the face.
Obama tried to deliver a 1988-style “passing of the baton speech” much like Ronald Reagan did for George Bush. The problem for him is that while the snobby elite demographics of his party might view the present as the 1988 equivalent for Democrats, in the eyes of most swing voters this is more like 2008.
In 1988, nobody could deny that it was a tranquil and prosperous time for the country. The economy was experiencing the most protracted period of growth post-WWII and the Soviet Union was defeated. People were not looking for fundamental change. Reagan just had to pass the baton to his successor and project his popularity on his Vice President while assuaging some of the concerns from GOP base voters. Swing voters never had a problem with Bush. That was essentially a convention speech for Reagan’s third term. The crowd even chanted “four more years” – not referring to four more years of GOP governance, but of Reagan himself.
Fast-forward 28 years later and we have a similar dynamic with a two term president attempting to pass the baton to the “next in line” in his own party for a third term of his presidency. Sure, they can post slick videos demonstrating some successes, such as killing Osama bin Laden (but not the assassination of SEAL Team Six just three months later!). But no swing voter in this country believes we are living in a stable, peaceful, and prosperous era. While the economy recovered from the deep recession, it recovered in the most lethargic way imaginable, inducing an indefinite period of stagnation instead of the traditional boom we experience following a sharp economic downturn.
More important than the economy, nobody outside of the gender studies lecturing rooms in elite colleges believes we are living in a period of safety and security. In fact, most voters, including Democrats, likely believe we have never faced a time where our nation was confronted by such an existential threat. The killing of Bin Laden has been rendered moot by the rise of ubiquitous terror attacks throughout western countries. Just 18 percent of the country believes we are on the right track; 73 percent believe we are on the wrong track.
There is no way to sugarcoat reality; most voters, even those who are not appalled by Obama’s values and governance, do not want a third term of Obama. They want a dramatic change. As I noted following Trumps’ acceptance speech, the weakness of the GOP nominee is not his diagnosis of the problem; it’s some of his solutions or the lack thereof on many issues, along with his character. To attack his diagnosis and deny the problems is akin to Saddam Hussein’s Minister of Information, otherwise known as Baghdad Bob, telling the press that the American military was being defeated even as they entered Baghdad.
The crisis we face in this election is the national security equivalent of the economic meltdown in 2008 after 8 years of Republican rule. And it’s not like the economy is great now either. Tack on the domestic insurrection in our major cities and we are experiencing the convergence of the worst elements of many periods of our history. It is for this reason why the McCain convention in 2008 relegated the sitting president to a short video message rather than a blockbuster prime time speech like Reagan did for George H. W. Bush in 1988. If Democrats wanted to project a new image and chart a new path, something the voters are demanding, they would have followed the 2008 model rather than 1988.
But that is not what the DNC was trying to accomplish. This speech was about the triumph of liberalism; the triumph of their vision. This was a culture war/values speech. And there is no doubt Obama has been an unrivaled success at implementing the fundamental transformation, thanks in large part to the collapse of the Republican Party. While the country is experiencing stagnation, rising crime in major cities, and the worst homeland security threat of our generation, Obama has been unflinching in leading his movement to victory after victory in remaking the country in their extreme ideology. He reminded those base voters who are not excited about Hillary or who badly wanted to see Bernie Sanders accept the nomination, that the party has already adopted the “Bern,” and his vision is already well on its way to changing America. He left no doubt that Hillary is committed to that agenda as well.
The question that remains is can Democrats, thanks to the demographic changes, succeed in winning a base turnout election even in a macro political climate that would have destroyed an incumbent party in any other era.
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