Can Dems answer Paul Ryan?

On the road to Charlotte, and before heading to Isaac-flooded Louisiana, President Obama stopped at a Labor Day rally in Toledo, Ohio, to make his case that he helped save the auto industry.
On the road to Charlotte, and before heading to Isaac-flooded Louisiana, President Obama stopped at a Labor Day rally in Toledo, Ohio, to make his case that he helped save the auto industry. (GETTY IMAGES)
Posted: September 05, 2012

YOU COULD make the case that the Democratic National Convention already started, six days ago - in Tampa, Fla., of all places.

That's when the theme for President Obama and his Democratic Party confab, in Charlotte, N.C., this week, was spelled out - by Rep. Paul Ryan, the GOP's vice-presidential nominee.

"So here's the question," Ryan said. "Without a change in leadership, why would the next four years be any different from the last four years?"

How well Obama and a female-heavy lineup that also includes his own foot-mouthed vice president, Joe Biden, and Obama "frenemy" Bill Clinton answer Ryan's question will help determine whether the president gets those four years.

Democrats in Charlotte will be striving to make the case that a) although Obama's 3 1/2 years have not been nirvana on Earth, they have been marked by real achievements, and b) there is a plan for a second term, and it's not as backward-looking as the GOP's vague proposals.

"The big thing will be defending the last four years - and then saying what your agenda is for the next four years," said G. Terry Madonna, the Franklin & Marshall College political scientist and pollster, speaking from Charlotte. "What [Obama] needs to do is give people the big reasons why he deserves four more years."

The good news for Team Obama is that Republicans in Tampa faced a much more complicated mission. Their Tampa talkfest was so geared toward "humanizing" the stiff ex-venture capitalist Mitt Romney and introducing Ryan to America that there was precious little time for talking actual policy - and precious little was put forth.

In contrast, the Democratic convention will probably focus more on issues, since voters already know Obama. That may not be a blessing, but a curse. With even less suspense in the air than in tepid Tampa, who on Earth would actually watch this thing?

For the Republicans, even the well-worn star power of Clint Eastwood couldn't prevent TV ratings from plunging 30 percent from 2008. As many cynical pundits have noted, in the coveted 25- to 49-year-old TV demographic, more people were watching a cable reality show called "Here Comes Honey Boo Boo."

Despite the low ratings, the GOP - which seemed a party in search of a message for much of a clumsy primary season and is no better than even in the polls despite 8.3 percent unemployment - feels that it's finally found its voice with its revival of Ronald Reagan's 1980 refrain, "Are you better off now than you were four years ago?"

Campaigning Sunday in Greensboro, N.C., Ryan said at a rally: "Simply put, the Jimmy Carter years look like the good old days compared to where we are right now."

Democrats fumbled their responses. When Maryland Gov. Martin O'Malley was asked whether America was better off than in 2008, he answered: "No . . . but that's not the question of this election. The question, without a doubt, we are not as well off as we were before George Bush brought us the Bush job losses, the Bush recession, the Bush deficits."

Like most Democratic pronouncements, that doesn't fit on a bumper sticker.

Instead, look for two things in Charlotte. The first will be a litany of speeches arguing that Obama has accomplished a lot more than he gets credit for: rescuing the U.S. auto industry and saving hundreds of thousands of jobs, allowing gays to serve openly in the military, and health-care reform that's bringing coverage to young adults and those with pre-existing medical conditions.

Unlike Tampa, do not include the words "Osama bin Laden" in your convention-watching drinking games - unless you're determined to die from acute alcohol poisoning.

The Democrats will also work toward their biggest strong point: demographics. It starts on Tuesday with keynote speaker Julian Castro, the young and little-known mayor of San Antonio, who should help capitalize on Latino distrust of the GOP on immigration.

Then come the women. Lots of women - from Lilly Ledbetter, the patron saint of equal pay for female workers, to Caroline Kennedy, to a parade of female House members that will include Philadelphia congresswoman Allyson Schwartz.

The diverse lineup will surely remind voters that it's not 1980 anymore - but will a political attack line from 1980 still work?

Stay tuned. Unless "Here Comes Honey Boo Boo" is on the other channel.


Contact Will Bunch at bunchw@phillynews.com or 215-854-2957. Follow him on Twitter @Will_Bunch. Read his blog at Attytood.com.

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