We suspect the Democratic National Convention in Charlotte will be a vaguely tragic affair. The president cannot run on his incumbency alone, since his term has been a disappointment to all but a self-deluding core of his early supporters. He will no doubt attempt to recapture some of that 2008 magic — when we were still the ones we were waiting for — but like all desperate grasps at nostalgia, the effort will be tinged with not a little melancholy. So the DNC will be primarily about fear: fear of Mitt Romney and Paul Ryan; fear of the illusory “War on Women”; fear of what the president calls “top-down economics”; and fear of a Republican party that, it will be supposed, has its boot on Granny’s neck even as it seeks to zero out the tax burdens of its greedy financiers.
But in Tampa, the Republicans have an opportunity to make stark the contrast between fear and facts, by making their convention — and the Romney/Ryan candidacy — about something good.
The convention not only needs to give an attractive picture to the country of who Mitt Romney is, and who Republicans are, but also of who conservatives think Americans are and aspire to be. Aspiration is the key. The Democrats have a habit of presenting Americans as passive victims of tragedy in need of government succor. Some people do need government assistance, of course, but most Americans do not see themselves as powerless in the face of forces beyond their control. They have goals and ambitions. They don’t need help from the government so much as they need obstacles removed, and institutions reformed so as to facilitate rather than frustrate or threaten their plans.
In making the case that America is on the wrong track and in need of new leadership, it will be tempting — sorely so — to emphasize the incumbent’s failures. But it is crucial that Republicans point out that the obstacles and dysfunctional institutions standing in Americans’ way precede Obama, even if he has in some cases made them worse and in others failed to do anything about them. This account will be more plausible for voters than one that implicitly or explicitly blames Obama for everything bad in American life, or that could be read to suggest that rolling back the Obama years (and thus returning to those of you-know-who) would simply fix everything.
As much as it is said that the election is a referendum on Obama, the American people will not deliver a mandate to a negation. For three days in Tampa, Republicans have a singular opportunity to demonstrate what they are for. It should not be wasted.