Guest Column: Conventions were carefully plotted successes

Barack Obama lights up a stage. When he strode before the cameras to accept his party’s nomination Thursday night, you saw him ignite pure triumphalism among the Democrats waving back at him. That incandescence obscured the menacing signs under which his party’s convention had begun three days earlier:

Tuesday had dawned uncharitably with a much-publicized new poll from The Hill newspaper: 52 percent of likely voters saying the U.S. is in “worse condition” now than in September 2008 – and 54 percent saying the president doesn’t deserve another term. Among independents, that second measure loomed at 61 percent. Obama’s campaign aides had spent the weekend fumbling the inevitable “Are you better off today …” question they somehow hadn’t anticipated.

The RealClearPolitics average of national surveys showed Obama slipping into a dead tie – to the tenth of a percentage point – with Republican Mitt Romney. Midday cast another curse over Charlotte: The president’s Treasury Department announced, uncomfortably, that the national debt now surpasses $16 trillion. That’s up 50.7 percent since he took office.

By Thursday night, though, Obama was instilling sheer confidence at a gathering more successful than it might have been, and rockier than it needed to be. He framed the stakes succinctly: “Over the next few years, big decisions will be made in Washington, on jobs and the economy; taxes and deficits; energy and education; war and peace – decisions that will have a huge impact on our lives and our children’s lives for decades to come.”

A week earlier, Romney and running mate Paul Ryan cast themselves as The Serious Ticket, ready to make those big decisions. They leveled with voters about their nation’s low-growth economy and their government’s high-growth spending.

Democrats crafted a different mission statement – ours is The Empathy Ticket – and delivered it very well. Where Republican speakers asserted their nominee’s competence at urgent turnarounds, Democratic speakers asserted their nominee’s connectedness to middle-class Americans.

“Know this, America,” Obama said Thursday night. “Our problems can be solved. … The path we offer may be harder, but it leads to a better place.”

Presidents don’t enjoy talking about hard times on their watch. But Democratic strategists had no choice: Not since the 1930s have Americans re-elected a president when unemployment was this high. Emphasizing empathy was the necessary prelude to an awkward request: No one has voiced the need for renewal in politics and governance – for “change” – more than Obama. But he needs time. When you pick the next president, don’t vote for … change.

No need for us to speculate on whether Americans were in a buying mood Thursday night: In the coming day’s polls, and most emphatically on Nov. 6, voters will deliver their aggregate yea or nay on these two conventions. Perceptions of these weeks will harden, and TV advertising will exploit the moments of strength or embarrassment. Example: Wednesday’s floor fight over whether to restore a mention of God to the party platform, a needless spat settled by a debatable ruling after three voice votes. Within 24 hours, Republicans had produced an ad attacking Democrats for having denied God thrice.

We don’t think that episode will matter to swing voters. Not a lot of people watch conventions anyway, and those who do tend to do so through red or blue lenses. We point here to the predictably bigger audience that skipped Bill Clinton’s stem-winding speech to watch an NFL football game. Time magazine’s James Poniewozik emerged from a heap of TV ratings data for both conventions to report that this year’s audiences were smaller than those of 2008. His analysis suggests that convention-watchers may be “confirmed political junkies, just waiting to cheer for the zingers and hear how their own side plans on campaigning to the actual undecided voters.” The undecideds, he concluded, “may well be watching ‘Here Comes Honey Boo Boo’ instead.”

Both parties had success with these events, aside from the Clint Eastwood hiccup. And now, enough of conventions until 2016. Bring on the debates, starting Oct. 3. Put these candidates side by side, take away their teleprompters and let’s see what happens.

The following editorial appeared in the Chicago Tribune on Friday, Sept. 7