Friday, September 7, 2012

Election Week in Review...Barack to the Future (September 7, 2012)

The Dems woke up from their convention delirium as they probably knew they would….to another tepid jobs report.  This was a bit of a reverse of last month….this time the unemployment rate went down, to 8.1% (a good trend but largely driven, unfortunately, by fewer people actively looking for jobs), but with only 96,000 jobs added.  This was below both the consensus expectation (125,000) as well as what they call the “whisper number” (200,000) based on the very favorable ADP report and, frankly, some wishful thinking. 

But the party faithful could still look back on a tremendous convention.  Our correspondent Steve is back with his take, what he calls….”Barack to the Future”…

Day for day, speech for speech, speaker for speaker, the Democratic convention outgunned the Republican convention by such a significant measure that were this the Olympics, no silver medal would have been awarded.

What it translates to in terms of voter opinion remains to be seen. It is still not clear whether Mitt Romney’s microscopic one point “bounce” was a function of the unimpressive convention, or that voter opinion is already locked in.

What I have enjoyed these past two weeks is to evaluate the conventions from the viewpoint of a communications professional. When I look at a piece communication – an ad, an essay, a speech – I ask two questions: (1) was the substance the right message, and (2) was it delivered in a way that is clear and persuasive? 

The reason the Dems blew the Repubs away was because they scored so well on both these measures.

The Democrats know that there are two kinds of “undecided” voters. There are people who are undecided about whether or not to vote. These are the people who are leaning your way, but they don’t feel motivated enough to get off their butts. The Dems seemed to focus Tuesday night on this group… and they sent out powerful emotional orators to rouse the base.

And there are people who are undecided about who to vote for. Brilliantly, the Dems gave this job to the big, big dog on Wednesday night, and just got out of his way. Clinton’s meticulous exegesis of the past four years, debunking republican mythology point by point, was simply an unprecedented tour de force in the context of a political convention. Only Bill could have pulled that off. 

Thursday night, they finally handed the ball to the Closer-in-Chief, who did his job well. I wasn’t as blown away by Obama as I have been in the past, but he defied the standard rule of staying “above the fray.”  He went after Romney hard, and also had soaring moments that reminded everyone of “yes we can. “ He cleared the bar, and far outperformed his republican counterpart. 

Let’s review the “Barack to the Future” trilogy.

Barack to the Future I: “Base Instinct”
Tuesday, September 4, 2012

Let’s be honest… beating the Republican Convention was not going to be that high a bar. Even the team at Fox knew that Mitt’s one point “bounce” on a trend chart looks the same as an 18-wheeler clearing a speed bump. And all anyone talked about recalling the three days in Tampa is that Clint Eastwood actually did make somebody’s day. Unfortunately for Mitt Romney, it was Jon Stewart’s.

However, the Dems still managed to get off to a questionable start, prominently featuring the one President who the Repubs want people to associate with Barack Obama. How is it that the Republicans are shrewd enough to pretend that George W. Bush was never president, and the Dems go out of their way to remind people that Jimmy Carter was?

But the Dems quickly got things back on track. Rahm Emanual reminded me of, well, Clint Eastwood without the chair. And Deval Patrick gave a rousing, full-blooded, challenging call to arms that rocked the house. 

Then it happened.

Michelle Obama walks on stage, shoves it into fifth gear and belts out a 93 octane speech that set the base on fire. No mention of Romney, republicans; just brilliant, nuanced lines that invited you to make your own comparison if you wanted.  Republicans had worried that Tropical Storm Isaac would steal their thunder; it was a Hurricane of a First Lady that blew them away.

The prior Tuesday, Ann Romney had tried to “humanize” Mitt by implausibly bemoaning the “hardships” they had encountered as newlyweds. Michelle Obama, in contrast, told the honest story of her young life… not emphasizing the very real struggles, but the inspirational character of her family. And the full arc of her speech – from her own childhood to her role as “mother-in-chief” – was emotional, powerful, compelling… and had the base jumping.

Round one went to the Democrats, and it wasn’t even close.

Barack to the Future, Episode II. “The Hope of Audacity”
Wednesday, September 5, 2012

If Tuesdays were the battle of the First Ladies, Wednesdays represented what was in retrospect a colossal mismatch. Paul Ryan compounded that problem by so frequently distorting the truth that the Republicans were cornered into the made-ready-for-Colbert quote that they would “not allow their campaign to be run by fact-checkers.” Elvis entered the building with one goal in mind: to take the Republican claims apart, one by one, point by point; patiently eviscerating their lies with a scalpel, the famous lip-curl, and the wry wink.

Bill Clinton, Phoenix eternal, rose not simply to the occasion, but to the very specific task. There’s an old joke about two guys on a hike in the woods who encounter a bear. One guy immediately laces up his sneakers. The other says, “Are you nuts? You can’t outrun a bear!” And the first guy replies, “I don’t have to outrun the bear. I just have to outrun you.”

Clinton realized that his job was not to justify Barack Obama’s performance relative to the “bear” of expectation; of promises made or slow progress to date. All he needed to do was help Obama outrun Mitt Romney. A far easier task.

Clinton didn’t self-righteously accuse the republicans of lying; he outwonked them in the style of a 21st Century Mark Twain character; pretending to admire the sheer phantasm of republican overreach. For sport, Clinton made it clear that Ryan’s only hope was his audacity. “Hey, it takes real brass for a guy to attack somebody for somethin’ he already did,” he drawled. Leaning in, raising that left thumb, he’d get intimate with his adoring audience, admonishing them to “listen closely now, cuz what ah’m ‘bout to say is re-al important.”

After ticking through the RNC’s checklist of un-fact-checked facts, Bill lowered the boom. Mitt Romney may not have realized that it had been a big gamble to pull out the Gipper line about “are you far better off than you were four years ago?” Lawyers should know better than to ask questions if they aren’t damn sure of the answer. 

By the end of Wednesday, Alex Castellanos, the obligatory Republican analyst on CNN, actually raised the white flag. “Lock the doors, don’t come back tomorrow. This will be the moment that re-elected Barack Obama,” he sighed. It was probably translated on Univision as “No mas.” 

Everything was teed up for the closer on Thursday night…

Barack to the Future, Episode III. “The Closer.”
Thursday, September 6, 2012

As good as the first two days had been, Thursday sparkled with twitter-ready killers. Michigan’s Jennifer Granholm let loose – actually shocking the audience – with a fusillade of attack lines; she summed up the motor city’s view of the two parties by explaining that the “D” on your gearshift stands for “drive forward,” and the “R” is for reverse.  

Normally charisma-challenged John Kerry casually tossed of the biggest grenade of the last two weeks: “Ask Osama Bin Ladin if he is better off now than he was four years ago.” Take that, Mitt-wit.

Give Joe Biden credit for the best speech of his career, connected two dots that no one has put together before, observing that Mitt Romney analyzed the auto-industry bail-out the “Bain Way,” and therefore reaching the wrong conclusion. This was insidious genius, challenging the appropriateness and value of Romney’s one long suit – business expertise – as something that cannot be readily translated to government.

And then the Dems brought out the closer.

As I noted above, I did not think this was the best Barack Obama I’ve ever seen. But he sure outran Romney – and he may have even outrun the bear.

Leveraging the fact that he actually is the President of the United States, Obama turned up the heat by overtly going after Romney’s inexperience and weakness on the global stage. He mocked him for insulting “our greatest ally” while visiting the Olympics; and accused Romney of living in a time warp for thinking Russia was “our greatest enemy.”  

In a theme that grew in significance over the three days, Obama took advantage of the fact that Romney had inexplicably – and perhaps catastrophically – failed to mention Afghanistan and our combat troops. When have Democrats had such free reign to flex muscles over defense and foreign policy? Obama didn’t squander the opportunity; he crushed it.

But the greatest rhetorical device he would employ was to realize that he must address the “bear” of failing to meet great expectations. He could not duck from all that “hopey changey stuff” that Sarah Palin used to mock back when she was relevant.

Obama brilliantly inverted the issue, reasserting the reality of hope and change in the American people. He ticked off important accomplishments of his administration, giving credit to the people. “You changed that,” he pointed out – simultaneously empowering his audience and providing testimony not only to the continued audacity of his hope, but to the authenticity of his change. 

When the music came up, I thought for one brief moment that Springsteen was in the arena, live, singing “We take care of our own.” And that, my friends, would have been the only thing that could have made this convention more successful for the democrats.

Three days, three storylines; each brilliantly conceived in message and overpowering in delivery. Turn up the Huey Lewis and the News… ‘cause the Democrats are going Barack to the Future.

Comments welcome!


  1. I really enjoyed both the posts about the conventions!

  2. Steve, your convention insights on the money, PAC or otherwise. I was in an elevator today with Chris Matthews and Katie Couric. "Who is this Steve Gardner," Matthews asked? "I always get him mixed up with his brother, Tom. Which one is the good-looking one?" Couric replied. My floor, had to get off. Missed the resolution of that one.


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