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The Conventions’ Gift: The Great Clarification

Memories are so short in Washington that I believe many of us are overlooking one striking feature of the two conventions: the extent to which the “who’s on whose side” question has become clarified. Just two years ago, the Democrats got wiped out in the midterm elections not just because of the lousy economy or upset over the Affordable Care Act, but because there was real confusion in the electorate, stoked by the Tea Party and its deep-pocketed benefactors, over who was on the side of reviled Wall Street and who was on the side of the little guy. Republicans masterfully cast Democrats as the party of the banks by playing up Wall Street-friendly figures such as Tim Geithner and by conflating TARP, which was passed under the Bush administration, with the economic stimulus package passed under Obama. It was a hugely brazen gambit—after all, Wall Street was shifting its support sharply behind Republicans; many of the candidates running under the Tea Party banner were getting major backing from the likes of the hedge-fund-fueled Club for Growth. But it worked, to the immense demoralization of Democrats. It's one thing to lose based on who you are—that’s democracy— but it’s another thing to lose when you’ve been mistaken for something you’re not.

That confusion has been dissipating over the past two years, aided by the continued shift of Wall Street away from Barack Obama, and the conventions pretty much wiped it clear for good. Much of the credit for this goes to the Republicans for nominating as their ticket Mitt Romney, a quarter-billionaire former financier, and Paul Ryan, a congressman beloved by financiers who have even been known to order him $350 bottles of pinot noir. The GOP did its best to sprinkle Horatio Alger tales throughout its proceedings (Marco Rubio, Susanna Martinez) but the overriding emphasis on the “I built that” theme generally confirmed the party’s image as the proud standard-bearer of the “I got mine,” gated-community vision of economic success. As Ann Romney put it: “It amazes me to see his history of success actually being attacked. Are those really the values that made our country great? As a mom of five boys, do we want to raise our children to be afraid of success? Do we send our children out in the world with the advice, ‘Try to do... okay?”

What was remarkable about the Democratic convention, to me, was the extent to which the party decided to take the opening presented by the Romney-Ryan ticket to present an unusually clear view of the communitarian philosophy that lies at the heart of the modern Democratic id but that has often been obscured in recent decades as the party was trying hard to bring Wall Street to its side. There was no Bob Rubin on stage—the only headline the former Treasury secretary and Citigroup director made was when he fell into a pool at a convention party. Instead, we got repeated, unembarrassed flashes of the let’s-get-along, pro-recycling, anti-materialism, look-out-for-the-little-guy, flannel-shirted soul of the party.

Michelle Obama:

[Barack] is the same man who started his career by turning down high paying jobs and instead working in struggling neighborhoods where a steel plant had shut down, fighting to rebuild those communities and get folks back to work...because for Barack, success isn’t about how much money you make, it’s about the difference you make in people’s lives.

Deval Patrick:

The question is: What do we believe? We believe in an economy that grows opportunity out to the middle class and the marginalized, not just up to the well connected....We believe that in times like these we should turn to each other, not on each other. We believe that government has a role to play, not in solving every problem in everybody’s life but in helping people help themselves to the American dream. That’s what Democrats believe.

Ted Strickland: 

Mitt Romney never saw the point of building something when he could profit from tearing it down. If Mitt was Santa Claus, he’d fire the reindeer and outsource the elves. Mitt Romney has so little economic patriotism that even his money needs a passport. It summers on the beaches of the Cayman Islands and winters on the slopes of the Swiss Alps. In Matthew, chapter 6, verse 21, the scriptures teach us that where your treasure is, there will your heart be also. My friends, any man who aspires to be our president should keep both his treasure and his heart in the United States of America.

Joe Biden:

When I look back now on the President’s decision, I also think of another son of an automobile man—Mitt Romney. Mitt Romney grew up in Detroit.  His father ran American Motors.  Yet he was willing to let Detroit go bankrupt.  It’s not that he’s a bad guy. I’m sure he grew up loving cars as much as I did.  I just don’t think he understood-I just don’t think he understood what saving the automobile industry meant-to all of America.  I think he saw it the Bain way. Balance sheets. Write-offs. Folks, the Bain way may bring your firm the highest profit. But it’s not the way to lead your country from its highest office.

Barack Obama:

But we also believe in something called citizenship, a word at the very heart of our founding, a word at the very essence of our democracy, the idea that this country only works when we accept certain obligations to one another and to future generations. We believe that when a CEO pays his autoworkers enough to buy the cars that they build, the whole company does better. We believe that when a family can no longer be tricked into signing a mortgage they can’t afford, that family’s protected, but so is the value of other people’s homes and so is the entire economy. We believe the little girl who's offered an escape from poverty by a great teacher or a grant for college could become the next Steve Jobs or the scientist who cures cancer or the president of the United States and it is in our power to give her that chance.

Now, one could argue that the Democrats should have gone even further in this direction and been more explicitly populist (as Strickland was), rather than just communitarian, given what they’re going to be up against these next two months—that they should have more clearly framed the election not just as a choice between two visions of the country but between a functioning democracy and the threat of plutocracy embodied in a handful of men spending hundreds of millions of dollars to sway the election. But a framing as stark as that would surely have earned condemnations of class warfare from the media scorekeepers. As it is, I found it pretty notable that the party was speaking about its values—about what constitutes real success, and what we owe each other—in terms that, not so long ago, might have been considered too Mario Cuomo-esque for comfort. Clearly, the party has decided that this tack is not only truer to its roots but also politically useful. And with polls suggesting that one of Barack Obama’s crucial advantages over Mitt Romney is the empathy gap, they have reason to believe that. Whatever happens in these next two months, it will be hard to argue that voters won’t have a clearer view of the choice than they did in 2010.

Follow me on Twitter @AlecMacGillis