For all the overt blunders committed in back-to-back U.S. election-year conventions – from the Republicans offering us an 82-year-old man's rambling conversation with an empty chair to the Democrats bogging down in debates about God and Israel – the most damaging one might have been a sin of omission.
With his failure during his convention speech to pay any tribute to men and women who have fought for the U.S. overseas, Republican nominee Mitt Romney inadvertently underscored the extent to which his party has abandoned the muscular patriotism that helped it win elections past. And he gave the Democrats an opportunity to turn the tables, by putting someone else on the defensive about their own zeal toward American exceptionalism.
The role reversal was evident in the DNC’s first two days largely in the repeated suggestions that Mr. Romney’s business record, his offshore banking habits and his opposition to the bailout of auto companies made him unpatriotic. But it was in the final night that the Democrats really went for broke.
Major decisions by President Barack Obama - from authorizing the killing of Osama bin Laden to those auto bailouts - were presented as signs of his deep love of his country. And the Republicans’ unwillingness to embrace some of those decisions, and the generally grim tone at their convention last week, were painted as evidence of a lack of faith in Americans.
By a conservative estimate, there were at least eight “USA!” chants in the Dems’ own red-meat proceedings Thursday night. American flags were distributed for waving at the appropriate time, and there were copious tributes to the country’s troops and (especially) veterans, and a country song with the chorus “Only in America, dreaming in red white and blue” played out the end of the night.
Nobody was blunter on Thursday than Vice-President Joe Biden, who performed the warm-up act for Mr. Obama’s convention-closing speech. “America is not in decline,” he shouted, red-faced, shortly before becoming choked up about the sacrifice made by U.S. soldiers killed in combat. “I’ve got news for Governor Romney and Paul Ryan: It has never, never, ever, been a good bet to bet against the American people.”
Mr. Obama, seeking the high road, was subtler. Still, he managed to work in a dig about how “our friends at the Republican convention were more than happy to talk about everything they think is wrong with America.” And he essentially built a case that Mr. Romney is negative about the country’s prospects and its role in the world, while he himself believes in it and see its potential.
And, yes, Mr. Obama did what Mr. Romney failed to do, praising “the Americans who still serve in harm’s way,” and praising “a generation whose sacrifice has made this country safer and more respected.”
It’s a safe bet that Mr. Romney will go out of his way in the weeks ahead to show that he, too, loves the troops. Still, he’s in an awkward position. The Republicans gratuitously wrapped themselves in the flag during the George W. Bush era, only for him to leave office with terrible approval ratings amid blame for an unpopular war. At their convention, they effectively pretended that Mr. Bush’s presidency had never happened, leading to an obvious reluctance to embrace its themes.
Perhaps the most telling moment, as the Democrats revelled in this turn of events, came with Senator John Kerry visibly enjoying himself as he delivered a blistering attack on Mr. Romney’s foreign-policy credentials. “The only thing exceptional about today’s Republicans is that, almost without exception, they oppose everything that has made America exceptional in the first place,” he pronounced.
Mr. Kerry knows this line of attack well because it was viciously and dubiously used against him by the Republicans when he ran for president eight years ago.
The Democrats are trying to make sure that never happens again, plus shift the focus from grim economic news. Since summer has ended, at least the Republicans don't have to worry about their candidate getting photographed windsurfing.