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Both parties go to extremes

Posted: September 13, 2012 5:36 p.m.
Updated: September 14, 2012 5:00 a.m.

CHARLOTTE -- At a time when the two parties usually reach out to grab every swing voter they can woo, this year’s conventions were unusually obsessed with firing up the base -- the loyal voters in each party who are most likely to show up on Election Day.

Past wisdom, as famously described by Richard Nixon, called for candidates to run toward the party’s most loyal base voters during the primaries, then run to the moderate swing voters in the middle for the general election. After attending both parties’ conventions, I find that old wisdom has been turned on its head. Both parties, to paraphrase the late Molly Ivins, are dancing with the ones who brought them -- and letting the less reliable moderate swing voters sort themselves out.

Republicans in Tampa rejoiced at nominee Mitt Romney’s choice of fiscally conservative Wisconsin Rep. Paul Ryan as his running mate, even though it put the future of Medicare, one of our government’s most popular and financially unsustainable programs into play as a touchy election-year issue. Democrats, including President Obama, railed against Ryan’s proposal to replace existing Medicare with a less-costly voucher system for those now under age 55. Yet, judging by their rhetoric you might think they believe Medicare can go on forever in its present form, which it can’t.

Romney promoted his ability as an experienced businessman to fix the economy, but remained hazy on the details of what he would do differently from Obama. But anyone looking for details from the president’s big convention speech as to what he would do differently in his second term probably came away as disappointed as I did.

Obama pleased the crowd by ridiculing Republicans for their one-size-fits-all remedy (“Take two tax cuts, roll back some regulations and call us in the morning”) and their determination to “double down on trickle-down” economics. But his own stated goals to boost manufacturing, energy independence, educational opportunities, national security and deficit reduction also lacked details as to how he would reach them, especially if Washington’s current political gridlock continues -- or gets worse.

Disdain for detail is understandable, I suppose, when the issues are as wonky as joblessness, economics and deficit reduction. A PowerPoint presentation wouldn’t go over too well at a political convention. It’s much more energizing for both sides to talk about social issues such as reproductive rights, gay marriage and Obama’s opening of education opportunities for the children of illegal immigrants -- issues that ignite the bases of both parties to move in opposite directions.

Former President Bill Clinton’s speech, the week’s best, wowed the crowd with a more vigorous and easily digestible defense of Obama’s economic and legislative achievements than Obama has managed to provide. When Obama made an unannounced appearance at the end of Clinton’s speech, past differences were nowhere in sight as the two men gave each other a hug -- probably the biggest, warmest hug that a national Democratic convention has seen since Al and Tipper Gore’s onstage kiss in 2000.

The enthusiasm was understandable. Obama is weak where Clinton is strong, particularly with persuadable older, white blue-collar voters. And Obama offered Clinton a chance to make himself a tough act for anyone, including Obama, to follow.

Both men are outstanding orators, the differences in their style and content were striking. Obama’s style is formal. Clinton’s is folksy. Obama’s lofty, stentorian eloquence calls attention to itself. Clinton’s conversational down-home style is transparent -- carefully planned but skillfully sounding off-the-cuff, peppered with ad-libs that play the crowd’s mood like a skilled fisherman reeling in a big catch.

The difference called to mind other significant differences in the cultural, political and oratorical backgrounds of these two presidents. Clinton gained national fame as a center-left governor of Arkansas in the Ronald Reagan 1980s. Unlike Obama, who represented a liberal Chicago constituency in the Illinois Senate, Clinton had to learn how to tailor his liberal agenda to a more conservative audience of blue-collar and middle-class Arkansans.

As Obama runs for a second term, he could learn a lot from Clinton on how to bridge political divides, not only to win elections but also to get things done afterwards.

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