The Democrats’ First Night

by Yuval Levin
If I understood the thrust of the Democrats’ speeches last night, then Mitt Romney has been a very bad president these last four years, and Barack Obama has the life experience and ideas to do better. Is that about right?
But really, other than Michelle Obama, who I thought did her job superbly, the convention’s first night had to have been pretty disconcerting for Democrats who want to appeal to the narrow sliver of voters who remain undecided or persuadable. If swing voters thought the economy was doing fine and if they really loved abortion and gay marriage, it would have been a great night for the Democrats. But polls suggest that is very far from what swing voters think.
The intense focus on abortion (especially before the 10 o’clock hour, but also during that hour of network coverage) was particularly peculiar as a way of presenting an appealing face to the country. The political analysts suggest this is all about turning out young women—that mid-20s to mid-30s single female demographic that Democrats utterly depend on now and that has often failed to turn out in the past. Women in that age group are certainly more likely to support abortion than other Americans (though not by much), but it seems to me that the intensity of the focus on the subject—to the extent it is indeed aimed at them—may well be a way of avoiding a focus on the economy, and especially on jobs, where the Democrats have a very difficult story to tell these particular voters.
The unemployment rate for women between the ages of 25 and 34 was 7.8% in February of 2009 (Obama’s first full month in office) and is 8.6% today. That’s not only higher than it was when Obama took office, it’s also higher than the overall unemployment rate, higher than the rate for men of the same age (and than the rate for all men), and higher than the rate for women in any other age group. Many of these women entered the workforce at a particularly bad time, and for them there has basically been no recovery from the collapse of the labor market in 2008. Here is what unemployment has looked like for women in that age group over the Bush and Obama years.
Obviously these women understand that the disaster began at the end of the Bush years. But they also know that for them things have not gotten any better in the Obama years. They are worse off than they were four years ago, and (perhaps more important) they are not on an upward trend; they are not recovering. If this is what your presidency looked like for a key constituency of yours, wouldn’t you do your best to talk about something else?
The trouble for the Democrats is that getting the attention of their own most loyal voters off the economy can’t be the focus of their fall campaign. Persuadable swing voters care intensely about the economy, and on the whole they tend to disagree with the Democratic Party about abortion. Presumably speaking to them is Bill Clinton’s assignment. It’s not something Barack Obama’s Democratic Party seems quite able to do.

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