The 2012 political conventions were unworthy of an important election

Walter Shapiro
Yahoo News

CHARLOTTE, N.C.A few quietmorning-after moments at the airport have prompted me to ponder a question thatrarely pops up in the hyperactive frenzy of political analysis at conventions: What do we know about Barack Obama and Mitt Romney that we didn’t know 10 days ago?

The honest answer is not much. Yes, it is impressive that both candidatesmarried women who have learned how to give powerful and emotionally resonantpolitical speeches. The testimonials from the men and women whom Romney helped as a lay leader of the Mormon churchlinger in memory. Bill Clinton, in the greatestspeech ever delivered by an ex-president at a politicalconvention, advanced a new argument that Romney’s proposed cuts inMedicaid funding would cripple middle-class families who depend on the programfor nursing-home coverage for their relatives. And as Obama and Joe Biden keptrepeating Thursday night in a burst of rhetorical overkill, Osama bin Laden is dead.

Correction: We already knew that bin Laden had been killed by Navy SEALs, eventhough Obama radiated the impression that he wants to commemorate the moment onthe Great Seal of the United States.

Nomination acceptance speeches remainthe best moment in the campaign season to mount a sustained argument that willbe heard by millions of wavering voters. But it is telling that both Romney andObama chose not to go in that artistic direction. Neither candidate evenoffered the specificity of George H.W. Bush’s hollow promise at the 1988 NewOrleans Republican convention: “Read my lips: No new taxes.”

Despite the low-brow tastes of conventionplanners in both parties, TV viewers can handle sophisticated politicalargument and substance. Recall the reaction to Condoleezza Rice in Tampa, Fla., as well as to Clinton on Wednesday night.But because of their natures and their no-risk political strategies, bothRomney and Obama declined an opportunity to (in Adlai Stevenson’s words) “talk senseto the American people.”

Actually, to be fair, the conventions did provideimportant insight into the candidates. What we received was a crash course inthe innate caution of Obama and Romney. Reluctant to veer off script, bothnominees cleaved to predictable paths as they created conventionsin their own image. In Tampa and Charlotte, theonly surprises revolved around the weather.

OK, Clint Eastwood in Tampawas the exception that proves the rule. But his bizarre and tastelessperformance (two suggestions that the president of the United States shouldperform an unnatural act) offered a window into the 65-year-old Romney’s ideaof contemporary show-business icons. Romney let Eastwood do his empty-headed,empty-chair shuffle in convention prime time because Cary Grant wasn’tavailable.

It might be tempting to dust off the cliché about the "Seinfeld" showand call this an election about nothing. (Confession: Iused that line to describe a prior election, but the campaign was soforgettable that I forgot which one it was.)

Except that, in reality, the stakes are high in this election, as countlessspeakers thundered in Tampa and Charlotte. Thatmay be a tired trope. (I suspect that the 1924 campaign between Calvin Coolidgeand a lawyer named John W. Davis nominated by the Democrats on the 103rd ballotin Madison Square Garden was described in equally apocalyptic terms.) But thisyear, the claims of a fateful choice are not hyperbole. The nation’s decisionin November will dictate the future of Obamacare, tax rates, long-term federalspending and probably the future direction of the Supreme Court.

But these are topics that both Romney and Obama refuse to address with anythingbeyond partisan boilerplate. The president spoke Thursday night about “hardchoices,” but he has lost the passion to talk about big ideas. Romney, for hispart, seems determined to run his campaign based on a single pledge: “I am notnow, nor have I ever been, Barack Obama.”

The American people deserve better, but it is unlikely they are going to get itfrom 30-second attack ads and three-minute debate responses. To put acontemporary twist on the immortal line from “Sunset Boulevard” uttered byGloria Swanson: “The problems are big, it’s the candidates that got small."

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