“So here we stand. Americans have a choice. A decision.”
—Mitt Romney acceptance speech,
Republican convention, August 30, 2012
“But when all is said and done—when you pick up that ballot to vote—you will face the clearest choice of any time in a generation. . . . On every issue, the choice you face won’t be just between two candidates or two parties. It will be a choice between two different paths for America. A choice between two fundamentally different visions for the future.”
—Barack Obama acceptance speech,
Democratic convention, September 6, 2012
Mitt Romney and Barack Obama are agreed: The 2012 election presents the American -people with a choice, not an echo. And the candidates are also right that it’s a choice of uncommon clarity and consequence.
Two roads diverge in the wood of American politics: Obamacare or patient-centered health care reform? The Ryan or the Obama budget? Supreme Court appointments in the vein of Sonia Sotomayor and Elena Kagan or in the spirit of Samuel Alito and John Roberts? A (slight) military buildup or (severe) defense cuts? Religious freedom or “free” contraceptives? The list goes on.
And yet, in their respective convention speeches, the president and his challenger did little to clarify the nature of the choices being presented to the voters. Obama mentioned his signature legislative achievement, the Affordable Care Act, not at all; Romney cited it twice. You couldn’t have had less budget detail from either candidate—and indeed the word “budget,” presumably judged by both camps to sound too harsh and restrictive, was mentioned once by Romney and not at all by Obama. Neither man mentioned the Supreme Court, though Romney did name-check the Constitution once—one more time than Obama. The military was judged worthy of brief discussion by both candidates for commander in chief—though Romney couldn’t be bothered to mention Afghanistan or the troops fighting there, and Obama went out of his way to make clear that he didn’t expect to do much war-fighting in his second term: “After two wars that have cost us thousands of lives and over a trillion dollars, it’s time to do some nation-building right here at home.” Romney did mention freedom of religion, while Obama neglected to mention free contraception—but he may have felt his fellow Democrats had exhausted that topic.
In sum, listening to Romney and Obama, to all of their windups and throat-clearing about how much is at stake in 2012—and then listening to their reticence, not to say timidity, in explaining just what is at stake, one couldn’t help but be reminded of the playground taunt: Are you a man or a mouse? Squeak up!
Perhaps this is unfair. Convention speeches aren’t policy documents. And it’s not as if, beneath and beyond the squeakily cautious speeches, it isn’t clear that there really is a lot at stake. It really is a big choice. Voters sense it. The candidates know it.
And the candidates also know that though they could avoid coming to grips with their choices in prepared-text speeches before their own party conventions, they will have unscripted moments over the next two months. They will have interviews. They will have debates. They’ll have to say more. They’ll have to speak up.
Mitt Romney in particular will have to speak up. Barack Obama went into the conventions a bit ahead in the race. We suspect he leaves the conventions still ahead—perhaps a little further ahead. Romney gained some ground when he chose Paul Ryan. But now he seems to be back to a pre-Ryan sort of campaign. When a challenger merely appeals to disappointment with the incumbent and tries to reassure voters he’s not too bad an alternative, that isn’t generally a formula for victory. Mike Dukakis lost.
As the examples of Ronald Reagan in 1980 and Bill Clinton in 1992 suggest, successful challengers don’t just jab lightly, parry punches, and circle the ring. They go for at least a few knockdowns. It’s not enough to float like a butterfly. You have to sting like a bee. No sting, no victory.