One day after the Democratic convention ended here, and a week after the Republican convention wrapped up in Tampa, and American politics is basically all tied up. Here’s the top line on Real Clear Politics 60 days before November 6: The RCP average for the presidential race shows a dead heat (Obama +0.7 percentage points), the Senate is 46-46 with 8 tossups, and the generic congressional ballot is tied.
And while the conventions gave us little indication who will win in November, they offered some insights into how the campaigns think they can achieve victory. Mitt Romney is running as a decisive but largely nonideological manager. Barack Obama is running as a proud, even aggressive, liberal whose policies just need more time.
In his address to the Democratic National Convention on September 6, Obama offered the country a full-throated, unapologetic embrace of government. Solving our challenges, he said, will “require common effort, shared responsibility, and the kind of bold, persistent experimentation that Franklin Roosevelt pursued during the only crisis worse than this one.” The speech was the apotheosis of a campaign that has glorified government at every turn. There was the bizarre website featuring a fictional “Julia” who relies on government assistance to get ahead at every stage of her life, and there was Obama’s “you didn’t build that” riff—both the comment and the context—diminishing individual accomplishment and celebrating government good works.
On the final night of the convention, shortly before Obama spoke, Barney Frank departed from his prepared remarks to offer the progressive view of self-government, a view that all too often ignores the crucial institutions between the individual and the state that make up civil society. “There are things that a civilized society needs that we can only do when we do them together,” Frank declared. “And when we do them together, that’s called government.” And the gathering in Charlotte opened with a video that declared: “Government is the only thing we all belong to.” Even Bill Clinton—who once famously declared an end to the era of big government—went all in to defend the sprawling and expanding government of Obama’s liberalism.
In Tampa, the Republicans emphasized competence over ideology. Their critiques of President Obama, particularly in the 10 p.m. hour when most people were watching, focused on his mismanagement of the economy and not his misguided views. And the tone was one of disappointment, not anger. “I wish President Obama had succeeded,” Romney said, “because I want America to succeed.” Although Obama has expanded the government more than any president since Lyndon Johnson, and arguably since Franklin Roosevelt, none of the prime-time speakers at the Republican convention labeled him “liberal.”
More voters identify themselves as conservatives than liberals—one reason conservatives are usually happy to apply that label to themselves and liberals often prefer euphemisms like “progressive.” The latest Gallup survey on ideology finds 41 percent of Americans consider themselves “conservative” and just 23 percent “liberal” (with 33 percent preferring “moderate”).
The same poll finds that conservatives do even better when the question concerns the economy. Some 46 percent of Americans consider themselves “conservative” on economic issues, while just 20 percent describe themselves as “liberal” on economics (and 32 percent say “moderate”). Shouldn’t Romney be using these labels at every opportunity?
There is some grumbling from conservatives that this is the latest example of the Romney campaign playing it too safe for fear of alienating the suburban housewives in Ohio and elsewhere they believe will decide the election. Many conservatives expected the campaign to change dramatically when Paul Ryan was added to the ticket. The campaign, they thought, would broaden its message from an almost exclusive focus on Obama’s short-term economic record to a larger critique of his leadership. And for the first week or so, with a strong offensive on Medicare and a sustained attack on Obama’s worldview, it looked as though the direction of the campaign had indeed changed. But since then, the critiques have felt smaller.
In an interview on September 6, I asked Paul Ryan whether he believes the campaign is still offering a big, bold choice on the direction of the country or whether the campaign is consciously shifting its emphasis back to the critique of Obama’s stewardship.
“I don’t see these as mutually exclusive paths or strategies,” Ryan said. “I’m talking about that choice—just look at my speech in Colorado Springs today. My convention speech was very philosophically clear when it comes to the choice between governing philosophies. And we also tried to highlight the president’s failed record. It’s both—running on Obama’s failures, but also making clear that we have an affirming choice of better ideas, better solutions of the American idea and what makes it tick.”
So there’s been no reversion to the more cautious strategy?
“No, I think what we’re trying to do is highlight the fact that this isn’t working and, number two, show—‘here’s what we’re offering.’ You want to win an election by acclaim, by affirmation. We want to earn this victory so that we have a mandate to fix this mess.”
Ryan continued: “The worst thing that could happen is for Barack Obama to get reelected. The second worst thing is that we win by default without a clear mandate of how to fix this mess. We want the mandate so that people know what they’re getting when they vote for us. That’s what worked in Wisconsin—I think we’ve just proven that—and we think that’s what people are hungry for. They want leaders of conviction, of clarity—and that’s exactly what we’re trying to do. So you have to first say, this guy isn’t working, it’s failing, look at the kind of campaign he’s running—and here’s what we’re saying, here’s what we’re going to do, here’s who we are, here’s what we believe, and if you vote for us this is what we’ll do. And that’s the kind of election we want to earn. It’s a two-step thought process.”
Still, Ryan strongly rejected the view of some Republicans and many in the conventional-wisdom caucus that the fate of the campaign is closely tied to the monthly jobs reports between now and November 6.
“I don’t think one statistic popping up on a Friday during this campaign is going to be monumental,” said Ryan, the day before yet another rotten jobs report came out. “People in their gut know that we’re on the wrong track in this country. They know that the president is going hard left. This is not a Bill Clinton Democrat, and I think people know that. So I just don’t think some statistic that comes out on any given day is going to be the primary motivator of this campaign. I think the die is cast, the trajectory is set, and the choice of the two futures is clear. We just have to make it even more clear, and we have to go to the country and ask them for permission to fix this mess.”
Stephen F. Hayes is a senior writer at The Weekly Standard.