Presidential nominating conventions make for interesting political theater, even if you do come away from watching them as confused as ever about what either candidate would actually do if elected.
For the most part, the Democratic and Republican conventions were giant pep rallies for the converted. There was a lot of inspiring rhetoric and many tales of personal struggle, both real and imagined. Leaders of each party distorted the records and plans of the other, while glossing over and obfuscating their own.
President Obama's acceptance speech had too few specifics; challenger Mitt Romney's had almost none. Paul Ryan, the GOP vice presidential nominee, kept fact-checkers busy with his disregard for the truth. Vice President Joe Biden was himself.
Clint Eastwood, speaking to Republicans, had a stammering conversation with an empty chair. Comedians loved it. Have you heard the new pickup line? "Is this seat taken, or are you talking with President Obama?"
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In one of the best speeches of his career, former President Bill Clinton took advantage of Republicans' vagueness to put his own spin on their plans. Clinton summarized the GOP argument for replacing Obama this way: "We left him a total mess, he hasn't cleaned it up fast enough, so fire him and put us back in."
U.S. Rep. Ben Chandler, a Kentucky Democrat who is in a tight race to keep his 6th District seat, was too chicken to attend his party's convention. His challenger, Andy Barr, got a speaking slot at the Republican convention, but he used his moment in the spotlight to push his campaign contributors' phony "war on coal" agenda.
One of the most honest comments in a speech at either convention came from Sen. Rand Paul, the Kentucky Republican. You may have missed it, because it was mixed in with a lot of libertarian sound bites and distortions of Obama's comment about government's role in creating infrastructure that contributes to individual success.
"Republicans and Democrats alike, though, must slay their sacred cows," Paul said. "Republicans must acknowledge that not every dollar spent on the military is necessary or well-spent. Democrats must admit that domestic welfare and entitlements must be reformed."
As we hunker down for eight more weeks of slimy attack ads, funded by millions of dollars in anonymous special-interest cash, there are some questions voters should ask before election day:
What are each party's specific plans for job-creation and economic revival? What can Obama do that he hasn't already done — or failed to do in the face of solid Republican opposition?
What specific things would Romney and a Republican-controlled Congress do to create jobs and boost the economy? More tax cuts and deregulation won't do it; they never have before.
Tax rates, especially for the wealthy, are already at their lowest point in decades. Do Americans really want dirtier air and water and more gambling on Wall Street? Financial deregulation, which began under Clinton, was a big cause of the 2008 crisis that tanked the economy. Bush-era tax cuts, plus two wars waged on credit, are the biggest causes of our exploding national debt.
If Obamacare is repealed, what would Republicans replace it with? So far, they haven't offered credible proposals for either expanding insurance coverage or curbing health care costs.
While Obama's health-care reform law has been easy to demagogue as a package, many of its individual elements are very popular, such as letting parents insure young-adult children and banning lifetime benefit caps and exclusions for pre-existing conditions. Do voters really want those reforms to go away?
If Obamacare survives, how will both parties find ways to lower health care costs? That is the reform law's biggest shortcoming. Improving on it will require Republican as well as Democratic solutions, many tough choices and less demagoguery. Is either party up to the challenge?
More than anything, voters should ask candidates running for the White House and Congress how they will work with those in the other party to solve the nation's problems. The past four years have clearly shown that ideological rigidity and partisan gridlock just make things worse, no matter who is in charge.