It’s early yet and too soon to make sweeping judgments about this convention: But the vibe is a lot like the 2004 Democratic Convention back in Boston. You’ve got a party making a case for its candidate based largely on a compelling personal narrative and testimonies to a virtuous character. We’re going to have three days stringing together a great war story.
But Kerry’s convention should be a cautionary tale: Character testimonials are a vital part of a convention, but they can’t compensate for a muddy case against your opponent and a failure to address the anxieties of the nation.
On night one, it’s startling to hear so little about the economy—especially since the Democratic convention did a relatively effective job pressing its populist argument. Actually, Obama well knows the problem with the Republican’s “reform” frame. All this talk about lobbyists is true. It certainly taps into populist outrage, but it doesn’t make a great vehicle for talking about economic anxiety—and harder still when you don’t spend time connecting the maladies of Washington to bread-and-butter concerns. (This was part of the problem that Obama encountered when running against Hillary Clinton. The "reform" argument and a critique of lobbyists simply doesn't connect with working class voters.) At the very least, I expected to hear more feel-your-pain empathy.
When it comes to their critique of Obama, I think the Republicans are wise to turn to the experience issue—even after the Palin pick. Last week, I heard one GOP talking head use the line: Obama hasn’t held any job for four years. That doesn’t happen to be true. He served in the state senate for seven. But it sounded good! Republicans can’t just assert Obama’s inexperience, they need to illustrate it vividly. They need to relate Obama’s inexperience to his policy proscriptions.
It’s hard to do, however, when you spend all you’re time dwelling on biography. Kerry, after all, left his convention with lots of good will—but without building a clear substantive critique. That good will disappeared over time. It’s not enough to just report for duty.