You know you’re not watching the Republican National Convention when someone steps up to the podium and opens with the line "I am Jewish. I am gay. I am a father."
Welcome to the Democratic National Convention, aka the DNC.
That was Colorado Congressman Jared Polis’ opening during the first night of a convention which wasn’t afraid to play to its base. Divisive issues like abortion and gay marriage were placed front and centre throughout the week. Joe Biden used the term "means of production". (Okay, I made that last one up).
If anything was a little jarring to the observing lefty, it was all the delegates holding placards which screamed "Middle Class First". The Romney and Obama campaigns have each made it their mission to capture as many middle class voters as possible; understandable, that’s how elections are won.
Election strategy aside, it all smacks a little of what Mark Latham termed "downward envy": that inversion of the tall poppy syndrome where the middle class was seen as the real victims of a welfare state which ignored them.
For all the things that American politicians do badly (campaign finance, foreign policy, turning everything into a "-gate"), one thing they certainly do well is oration. People are excited by a fine speech here in a way they just aren’t in Australia.
Perhaps because the truly cynical mostly ignore politics in the States, political figures seem more intent on catering to a political audience; an audience that wants to be inspired and doesn’t mind someone who lays it on a bit thick with speeches built around lofty concepts like "the American Dream".
At their core, the RNC and DNC are nothing more than a bunch of speeches, but they are still given an hour of prime-time coverage on every major network for each of the night of the convention, and people really watch them.
Can you imagine the Liberal or Labor conferences being given that kind of coverage? Or can you even imagine anyone tuning in to watch the Prime Minister speak for more than 10 minutes?
Bill Clinton’s speech was widely praised, though I found him a little didactic. Apparently I was the only one who wasn’t charmed by the fact that he ran over his allotted time by about 25 minutes (it was 11.30 on a Wednesday night), though his best lines did come from off the cuff.
Obama himself was indeed workmanlike, but we all have high expectations for him now. Michelle was my favourite speaker, lighter on policy and reaching for the stars in a way that her husband wasn’t able to, lest he again be branded "all sizzle and no steak".
Even the underrated Biden was strong with Kennedy-esque lines such as "We see a future where America leads not only by the example of our power, but by the power of our example."
But the most impressive speakers of both the RNC and DNC were the respective headline Latinos: Senator Marco Rubio for the Republicans and San Antonio mayor Julian Castro for the Dems.
With both parties trying to characterise their respective leaders as more in touch with the struggles of middle America, it was these two men speaking to the experiences of their immigrant parents that gave both conventions their grandest moments of soaring oratory.
Rubio: "My dad was a bartender. My mom was a cashier, a hotel maid, a stock clerk at Kmart. They never made it big. They were never rich, and yet they were successful, because just a few decades removed from hopelessness, they made possible for us all the things that have been impossible for them."
"A few years ago, I noticed a bartender behind the portable bar in the back of the ballroom. I remembered my father, who worked as many years as a banquet bartender. He was grateful for the work he had, but that’s not like he wanted for us. You see, he stood behind the bar all those years so that one day I could stand behind a podium, in the front of a room."
And Castro: "In the end, the American dream is not a sprint, or even a marathon, but a relay. Our families don’t always cross the finish line in the span of one generation. But each generation passes on to the next the fruits of their labor. My grandmother never owned a house. She cleaned other people’s houses so she could afford to rent her own. But she saw her daughter become the first in her family to graduate from college. And my mother fought hard for civil rights so that instead of a mop, I could hold this microphone."
A foreigner’s impression
West Wing character Josh Lyman once remarked that "People think the campaign’s about two competing answers to the same question. They’re not. They’re a fight over the question itself."
One of the frustrations of watching these elections as a non-voter is how they are often decided by issues that we foreigners regard as frivolous or irrelevant. The Daily Mirror probably encapsulated this frustration most succinctly with their memorable November 2004 front page.
Truth is, not enough Americans were bothered about Bush’s foreign policy disasters as they were about "moral issues": gays, religion, and tits at the Superbowl. It wasn’t until things went sour domestically with Hurricane Katrina that the tide turned against Bush; it was all well and good when he botched the clean-up of foreign (man-made) disasters, but they’d be damned if he brought that ham-fisted approach home.
This is why Romney may win in November.
Most Americans will never really understand how the Obama administration has improved their nation’s standing in the eyes of the world, and even if they did, so many wouldn’t care. When Romney flubbed his way through his only foreign tour as a presidential candidate in July, Louisiana governor Bobby Jindal remarked: "The reality is we’re not worried about overseas headlines. We’re worried about voters back here in America. I think the focus needs to continue to be on what’s happening here at home. That’s what’s important to voters."
Even without my personal bias, the Democrats had a far more impressive convention last week which truly underscored the party’s strengths. The Republicans, while adept at criticising Obama, just couldn’t muster the same enthusiasm for Romney’s candidacy.
But this election will be decided on the economy and whether people want to make a change. It will be based on sentiment.
It’s not how I’d have it, but it’s not my country.
Campaign video of the week
How is this not satire?
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