Morning Newsletter

Focus on Democratic convention

Obama's little ideas won't address big problems

As I looked to Obama's speech Thursday night, I was looking to see if he was capable of a new burst of change. There were parts of his speech that raised the old expectations. I liked the emphasis he put not on himself but on the word "you" — the idea that change comes organically from the bottom up. I liked his extraordinary self-awareness, his willingness to admit that often life on the campaign trail requires candidates to do silly things. I liked the sense of citizenship that pervaded his address, the sense of mutual obligation.

But what I was mostly looking for were big proposals, big as health care was four years ago. I had spent the three previous days watching more than 80 convention speeches without hearing a single major policy proposal in any of them. I asked governors, mayors and legislators to name a significant law that they'd like to see Obama pass in a second term. Not one could. At its base, this is a party with a protective agenda, not a change agenda — dedicated to defending government in all its forms.

The Obama speech offered some important if familiar hints of big policy ideas. There was a vague hint of a major tax reform. There was a vague promise to accept an agreement based on the principle of the Simpson-Bowles committee on deficit reduction. But it's hard to be enthusiastic about Obama's truly championing initiatives that get no more than a sentence or a clause.

Overall, the speech had a fierce opposition toward the Republicans and a desire for incremental continuity about what the Democrats themselves would offer. Worse, the speech was dominated by unexplained goals that were often worthy, but also familiar, modest and incommensurate with the problems at hand.

The country is not on the right track. It has a completely dysfunctional political system. What was there in this speech that will make us think the next few years will be any different? America will only be governable again if there is a leader who breaks the mold and reframes the debate. Mitt Romney is unlikely to do that, and Obama's speech didn't offer much either.

In short, change is still the issue, and the focus of this solid but not extraordinary speech was incremental improvement. The next president has to do three big things, which are in tension with one another: increase growth, reduce debt, and increase social equity. Obama has the intelligence, the dexterity and the sense of balance to navigate these challenges. But he apparently lacks the creativity to break out of the partisan categories, the trench warfare gridlock.

Thursday night's speech showed the character and his potential. It didn't show audacity and the fulfillment of that potential.

Yes, president has helped clean up financial mess

Bill Clinton's speech at the Democratic National Convention was a remarkable combination of pretty serious wonkishness — has there ever been a convention speech with that much policy detail? — and memorable zingers. Perhaps the best of those zingers was his sarcastic summary of the Republican case for denying President Barack Obama re-election: "We left him a total mess. He hasn't cleaned it up fast enough. So fire him and put us back in."

Great line. But is the mess really getting cleaned up?

The answer, I would argue, is yes. The forces that have been holding the economy back seem likely to fade away in the years ahead. Housing starts have been at extremely low levels for years, so the overhang of excess construction from the bubble years is long past — and it looks as if a housing recovery has already begun. Household debt is still high by historical standards, but the ratio of debt to GDP is way down from its peak, setting the stage for stronger consumer demand.

And business investment has actually been recovering rapidly since late 2009, and there's every reason to expect it to keep rising as businesses see rising demand for their products. So, as I said, the odds are that barring major mistakes, the next four years will be much better than the past four years.

Does this mean that U.S. economic policy has done a good job? Not at all. We should have had strong policies to mitigate the pain while households worked down their debt, as well as policies to help reduce the debt — above all, relief for underwater homeowners.

The policies we actually got were far from adequate. Debt relief, in particular, has been a bust — and you can argue that this was, in large part, because the Obama administration never took it seriously. But, that said, Obama did push through policies — the auto bailout and the Recovery Act — that made the slump a lot less awful than it might have been. And despite Mitt Romney's attempt to rewrite history on the bailout, the fact is that Republicans bitterly opposed both measures, as well as everything else the president has proposed.

So Clinton basically had it right: For all the pain America has suffered on his watch, Obama can fairly claim to have helped the country get through a very bad patch, from which it is starting to emerge.

Dems tried to cover up bad immigration record

The way that the Democratic Party manipulated the immigration issue at its national convention was just reprehensible. What party officials did was use the illusion of inclusion to camouflage what the party's agenda is really all about -- taking care of organized labor and other elements of the Democratic coalition who fear competition, while fooling Latinos into thinking they're the ones being taken care of.

The show got under way when San Antonio Mayor Julian Castro delivered the kind of inspirational keynote speech that Latino Democrats have long been waiting for -- one that reflects their experience here in the United States. But Castro dedicated only one line in his speech to immigration. And you can bet that those 33 words were carefully vetted by Democratic officials who don't want their party being seen as weak on border security or soft on illegal immigrants.

"And because he knows that we don't have an ounce of talent to waste," Castro said, "the president took action to lift the shadow of deportation from a generation of young, law-abiding immigrants called dreamers."

The Democrats' rising star was referring to President Barack Obama's announcement several weeks ago that young illegal immigrants who are not currently in deportation proceedings could apply to the Department of Homeland Security and possibly receive a two-year work visa that would allow them live in the United States without fear of being removed. What happens after the visa expires is anyone's guess.

On Day Two, Rep. Luis Gutierrez, who has been one of the most outspoken critics of Obama's deportation policies and the removal of about 1.5 million people, delivered a speech in which he also praised Obama for taking "steps to lift the shadow of deportation from deserving young people." Gutierrez claimed that, by doing this, Obama is "protecting immigrants."

But protecting them from what? Answer: The executive branch, which carries out deportations. Who runs the executive branch? Barack Obama.

And who was it who killed the DREAM Act, a bill that would have granted permanent legal status to college-bound students, when it came up for a vote in the Senate in December 2010? Answer: five Democrats — John Tester and Max Baucus of Montana, Kay Hagan of North Carolina, Mark Pryor of Arkansas, Ben Nelson of Nebraska — who voted "no" on cloture.

And then Wednesday night came Bill Clinton, who brought down the house but also continued the charade. Clinton is the last person who should be talking about opening doors for immigrants. All he did while in office was close those doors.

The Democrats overplayed their hand. They tried so hard to cover up who they really are when it comes to immigration. But for those who follow the debate closely, they wound up making it obvious.

Dem convention wins on message, enthusiasm

Judging by the party conventions, you'd wonder why this election is even close. In Tampa, despite some unexpectedly amateurish stagecraft, Republicans put on a credible display of unity and resolve. No one could come away doubting that the party very much wants to defeat President Barack Obama in November.

But I think it's fair to conclude that the GOP's emphasis is on "defeat Barack Obama" rather than "elect Mitt Romney." And many of the party's rising stars, judging by their convention speeches, seem to believe it's likely that Romney will lose.

Coming to Charlotte, I expected to see a party on the defensive. Instead, Democrats orchestrated a convention that felt strikingly focused and spirited. Speakers relentlessly emphasized the "re-elect Obama" side of the equation, relegating "defeat Romney" to second billing. The oratory was superior, the visuals were more telegenic and there were no Clint Eastwood moments.

You can't conclude that just because the Democrats' three-day infomercial was better than what the GOP put on, Obama is going to win. But even if the conventions aren't remotely as important as they once were, they're not meaningless. They do say something, and this year the message for Democrats is decidedly hopeful.

As I said, the GOP did a respectable job. The most obvious missed opportunities came on the final night -- not just the Eastwood Incident, but also the failure to ensure that some of those tributes to Romney's character from individuals whose lives he touched aired on the broadcast networks. But none of this amounts to a major disaster.

Thematically, however, there was a meandering quality to the Tampa convention. In large part, this was due to the decision by some of the marquee speakers to spend more time talking about themselves and their accomplishments than about Romney.

In Charlotte, by contrast, there was practically no freelancing. Every speech centered on one of two clear themes: Why voting for Obama and the Democrats is right and why voting for Romney and the Republicans is wrong. Self-indulgence and self-promotion were not allowed.

And for all the talk of an "enthusiasm gap" favoring Republicans, the energy levels inside the two arenas tell a different story. It's not that the Tampa hall lacked enthusiasm, it's that the Charlotte hall seemed absolutely on fire. Maybe it was desperation among Democrats who realize that Obama could possibly lose. Maybe it was the acoustics. Whatever the reason, I don't know anyone who didn't notice the difference.

Conventions don't win or lose elections, but they can help or hurt. This tale of two cities says Obama has had a very good couple of weeks.