It's fashionable to disparage party political conventions as "infomercials." But the Republican National Convention that concluded Thursday in Tampa, Fla., was informative -- and not just about the techniques of modern political communication and the dangers of allowing octogenarian actors to improvise.
That's not to say there weren't empty phrases, misrepresentations and endless cliches. Details and substance took a back seat. But principally through the well-received acceptance speeches of Mitt Romney and Paul Ryan, the party made it clear that it intends to contest this election on a simple proposition: that President Obama, who raised so many hopes so high four years ago, has been a disappointment, particularly in his stewardship of the economy. It's a potentially potent message that the president needs to rebut this week at the Democratic National Convention in Charlotte, N.C.
There were other messages, of course. Some were mendacious, such as Ryan's misrepresentation of the effect of the Affordable Care Act on Medicare benefits and Romney's tired canard that the Obama administration has "thrown allies like Israel under the bus." Others were merely misguided. Both in their platform and in speeches, the Republicans left no doubt that extreme social conservativism and science-denial now define the party's orthodoxy.
Romney's gibe that Obama "promised to begin to slow the rise of the oceans and heal the planet" was partly an attack on the alleged grandiosity of Obama's 2008 campaign, but it also reflected the Republicans' indifference to climate change, a term the GOP platform encloses in mocking quotation marks. And while Romney didn't dwell on abortion or same-sex marriage -- promising briefly to "protect the sanctity of life [and] honor the institution of marriage" -- he didn't have to. He long ago signed on to the agenda of the religious right.
Democrats will remind the nation of that fact this week, and they should. Even if Romney and Ryan mute their positions on social issues for tactical purposes, those positions would have important consequences if they were elected (not least in the selection of Supreme Court justices).
But the Democrats also need to confront what the Republicans obviously hope will be the take-away from Tampa. It was encapsulated in two of the convention's biggest applause lines: Romney's "You know there's something wrong with the kind of job he's done as president when the best feeling you had was the day you voted for him." And Ryan's generational spin on that buyer's-remorse argument: "College graduates should not have to live out their 20s in their childhood bedrooms, staring up at fading Obama posters and wondering when they can move out and get going with life." A cheap shot, perhaps, but one that resonates in a lot of those bedrooms at a time of unacceptably high unemployment. So do charges by Republicans that the Obama administration is unwilling to control the growth of entitlements, including benefits for the elderly (however inconsistent that is with the claim that Obama is "raiding" Medicare).
To some extent, that defense will consist of fact-checking the opposition -- for example, by pointing out that the much-maligned stimulus did save and even create jobs, and that it was Republican obstructionism that helped to sabotage a "grand bargain" on tax reform and deficit reduction.
But we hope Obama does more than boast of modest progress and shift the blame for what hasn't been accomplished. The best response to Romney's challenge would be to explain how, with a renewed mandate, the president will be able to enlist a Congress that may not be all that different from the current one in efforts to combat unemployment, repair the economy and move forward with the rest of his program, from climate change to immigration.
Even before the Republican convention, a lot of Americans otherwise favorably disposed to Obama were growing frustrated by Washington's political paralysis. While much of the blame for that should fall on his GOP opponents, the president nevertheless needs to explain how his second term would be different. Whatever else Romney accomplished in Tampa -- humanizing his image, uniting his party -- he succeeded in moving that question to the fore. How Obama answers, in Charlotte and in the campaign, could make all the difference.