Recent speeches at the back-to-back political conventions in the United States must have scared anyone unfamiliar with the pandering populism and outright propaganda that precedes an American election. Although the country seems incapable of regaining its lost economic momentum, and its Byzantine health care and decrepit infrastructure are now bywords for poor governance, the political rhetoric at both conventions remained largely self-serving and irrelevant. Both parties spoke to their bases with a partisan righteousness that would be shameful in other developed democracies, and neither seemed willing, or, more worryingly, capable, of talking sincerely about the hard choices ahead.
The most egregious speech came from the iconic actor/director Clint Eastwood. Conversing with an imaginary President Obama, supposedly in an empty chair beside him, Eastwood recalled Obama’s victory: “Everybody is crying, Oprah was crying. I was even crying … and I haven’t cried that hard since I found out that there are 23 million unemployed in this country. Now that is something to cry for because that is a disgrace, a national disgrace … and I think possibly it may be time for somebody else to come along and solve the problem.” Eastwood betrayed no interest in the origins of the problem, nor any sense of the GOP’s unstinting opposition to the President’s proposed solutions, nor did he acknowledge any qualms over the seemingly universal Republican detestation of “government” – which, presumably, will have some part to play in an eventual solution.
The speech spawned thousands of parodies in the Twitterverse (many with the tag #invisibleObama). These noticed that Eastwood had, perhaps inadvertently, nearly doubled the official unemployment figures (23 million Americans are either unemployed or underemployed). But parts of the speech lay beyond parody.
As the overwhelmingly white convention audience guffawed, and roared approval, Eastwood pretended to hear the President yelling expletives, which he quickly rebuffed, adding for good measure: “You’re crazy, you’re absolutely crazy. You’re getting as bad as Biden. Of course we all know that Biden is the intellect of the Democratic Party. Kind of a grin with a body behind it.” Later on, he assured the crowd that “you, we – we own this country. We – we own it … politicians are employees of ours.” Eastwood seems to have intended this as a general criticism of politicians, but during a convention at which two attendees had to be ejected for racist taunts of a black CNN camerawoman, the remarks seemed, at best, tone-deaf.
Marco Rubio, the rising star of the party, gave the best speech at the GOP convention, invoking the dream that had drawn his Cuban parents to America. His back-story quickly segued quickly into a lament about budget deficits, Obamacare, the jobless recovery, and “scores of new rules and regulations.” Rubio dismissed them as “tired and old big government ideas. Ideas that people come to America to get away from. Ideas that threaten to make America more like the rest of the world, instead of helping the world become more like America.” Unquestionably, in the context of his own life – “My dad was a bartender. My mom was a cashier, a maid and a stock clerk at K-mart. They never made it big” – the “American Miracle” is appealing. But Rubio never paused to explain how the Devil-take-the-hindmost free market absolutists currently in charge of the Republican Party would restore this vaunted Dream for the poor, far less for the huddled masses who dare to repeat his parents’ gamble.
Ryan’s and Romney’s writers produced flashes of the eloquence that marked the second Bush presidency
(“It all started off with stirring speeches, Greek columns, the thrill of something new. Now all that’s left is a presidency adrift, surviving on slogans that already seem tired, grasping at a moment that has already passed, like a ship trying to sail on yesterday’s wind.”), but both fell foul of neutral fact checkers and neither man had the political charisma to deliver the lines convincingly. The masterclass in salesmanship came later, at the Democratic convention, when Bill Clinton shrank the GOP platform down to a single dismissive soundbite: “In Tampa, the Republican argument against the President’s re-election was pretty simple: we left him a total mess, he hasn’t cleaned it up fast enough, so fire him and put us back in.” Clinton’s speech also refuted Republican allegations that Obama had ‘raided’ Medicare, that he’d failed to create jobs, and that he had no plan for the future. It was all delivered with the former president’s signature charm, especially a well-placed quip about a Republican pollster who said “we’re not going to let our campaign be dictated by fact checkers.”
Obama himself seemed remarkably low-key, unable to muster more than a passable imitation of his earlier candidacy, visibly reduced by the tribulations of his first term. Occasional humour seemed to enliven him (“all they have to offer is the same prescription … 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.”) but the soaring rhetoric of 2008 gave way to a matter-of-fact apology for his failure to deliver. The whole speech was kept purposefully plain. After quoting a scriptural reference to a “future filled with hope” Obama asked: “And if you share that faith with me – if you share that hope with me – I ask you tonight for your vote.” The humility sounded entirely genuine.
There was one grace note that nicely encapsulated the distance between the candidates, and suggested some of the hard lessons the President has learned on the job: “As citizens, we understand that America is not about what can be done for us. It’s about what can be done by us, together, through the hard and frustrating but necessary work of self-government.” That deliberate, plodding and oddly memorable last phrase is, essentially, the heart of a worldview that the President hopes will decide the next American election. It’s not likely to adorn any bumper stickers, but it is a far better encapsulation of what Obama now has to offer than any of the reheated slogans.