It’s now just been a couple of hours since President Obama wrapped up the three day Democratic National Convention. And I’ll admit it: Obama’s speech bored me. Disjointed, excruciatingly safe, slim on policy detail, and clumsily stuck together by boilerplate. A good speech rises to a pitch, each element in service of its peroration, and a higher theme. I didn’t detect one.
But, like the best actors who rise above their hackneyed lines, Obama’s strengths nearly created the illusion that this anorexic speech had some flesh on it. Obama’s gifts were there: the fluid self-assurance, the million-watt smile, his easy charm. The man’s graceful, possessed of an admirable “equipoise” in the words of columnist David Brooks. But the speech was not brave and it was far from the best, and those personal strengths are not themselves reason for re-election.
The arguments for re-election were better made by Bill Clinton, who, in a speech nearly doubled in length by ad-libbed remarks, passionately detailed the Republican flaws—most notably in their fiscal approach, this year the defining distinction between the two parties.
Romney’s running mate, Congressman Paul Ryan, has nearly climbed the summit of the GOP by becoming its intellectual leader—its fiscal architect. He’s an attractive and likeable spokesperson, and the Ryan budget is now the party’s most obvious response to the vertiginous deficit of the United States.
Rhetorically, Ryan’s budget is an exhumation of voodoo economics, practically it involves abolishing the current tax regime (creating just two rates, 10% and 25%) and instituting impossibly massive cuts to non-defence discretionary spending.
How massive? Leaving aside Ryan’s plans for Medicaid, Medicare and social security, his budget calls for non-defence discretionary spending to be reduced to a wafer-thin 0.75% of GDP—an impossible reduction on current levels, and utterly, unthinkably difficult to sell publicly.
It’s difficult to overstate the effect this would have on America, but it’s also difficult to speculate in much detail given that the specific sources for those cuts aren’t provided. At least Ryan could be congratulated for giving us any specific numbers at all—Romney’s wilful vagueness has befallen this campaign like a London fog.
Enter Bubba: “I mean, consider this. What would you do if you had this problem? Somebody says, ‘Oh, we’ve got a big debt problem. We’ve got to reduce the debt.’ So what’s the first thing he says we’re going to do? ‘Well, to reduce the debt, we’re going to have another $5 trillion in tax cuts, heavily weighted to upper-income people. So we’ll make the debt hole bigger before we start to get out of it.’
“Now, when you say, ‘What are you going to do about this $5 trillion you just added on?’ They say, ‘Oh, we’ll make it up by eliminating loopholes in the tax code.’ So then you ask, ‘Well, which loopholes? And how much?’ You know what they say? ‘See me about that after the election.’”
So, that was the tax side of the Republican budget. As for the cuts, Clinton said:
“They’ll have to cut so much spending that they’ll obliterate the budget for the national parks, for ensuring clean air, clean water, safe food, safe air travel. They’ll cut way back on Pell grants, college loans, early childhood education, child nutrition programs, all the programs that help to empower middle-class families and help poor kids. Oh, they’ll cut back on investments in roads and bridges and science and technology and biomedical research. That’s what they’ll do. They’ll hurt the middle class and the poor and put the future on hold to give tax cuts to upper-income people who’ve been getting it all along.”
It was a memorable speech, intelligent, impassioned, detailed and powered by Clinton’s fabled id. Bubba’s appetites and contradictions are enormous, but so is his magnetism, and this speech overflowed, if you knew where to look, with both his compassion and narcissism.
His speech was also a master-class on discussing policy detail, about intelligently elevating—not lowering—that detail to the stuff of excited collective purpose. Clinton is an enthusiastic policy wonk, and his great gift is transposing his enthusiasm to intelligent primers and calls to arms.
There was another vintage gift on show: Clinton’s intuitive sense of where to draw the political line, where to meaningfully—and profitably—demarcate the parties. That battleline is fiscal policy, and after memorably staking out the turf, Clinton systematically shredded the resurrection of voodoo economics.
Which takes us back to Obama’s speech. Perhaps the most memorable lines—and for me, there really weren’t any—came when he took at a jab at his opponents, along similar lines to Clinton:
They want your vote, but they don’t want you to know their plan. And that’s because all they had to offer is the same prescription they’ve had for the last thirty years:
“Have a surplus? Try a tax cut.”
“Deficit too high? Try another.”
“Feel a cold coming on? Take two tax cuts, roll back some regulations, and call us in the morning.”
It evoked the image of a quack doctor, a glib practitioner responding not to the particular patient at hand, but resorting lazily to the chimera of a fix-it-all solution—resorting to precedent or ideology rather than a sober and present examination.
Given the importance of it, given Obama’s intense competitiveness and preparedness, it’s impossible to think that the script he delivered was somehow not exactly what he wanted to give. What’s more likely, and has been argued here, is that the caution was strategic. This campaign will not be won, seems to read the sub-text, the other side must lose it. Maybe—maybe—this is smart, but it’s far from inspirational.