Democratic convention challenge: Getting beyond 'are you better off?'

One prominent Democrat's admission that Americans aren't better off than they were four years ago set off a feeding frenzy. But in Charlotte for the convention, Democrats have plenty of ideas on how to win the week.

David Goldman/AP
The Obama campaign logo is seen under the scoreboard hanging from the ceiling inside Time Warner Cable Arena at the Democratic National Convention in Charlotte, N.C., on Monday, Sept. 3.

If the Republicans get their way, the Democrats will spend their entire convention trying to answer, avoid, or reframe the question that has dominated the headlines: Are you better off now than you were four years ago?

The answer, of course, for many Americans is no. And when the convention kicks off Tuesday night in Charlotte, N.C. – most prominently, with addresses by keynoter Julian Castro, the rising-star mayor of San Antonio, and first lady Michelle Obama – it will be the elephant in the arena. But there are plenty of ways President Obama and his surrogates can work with, and around, the question memorably posed 32 years ago by Ronald Reagan, Democratic strategists say.

Whether Mr. Obama succeeds will go a long way toward determining the success of his convention.

The answer starts with how the election is being framed by both sides – as a choice, not just a referendum on the incumbent. Ironically, it was Republican nominee Mitt Romney who yanked the spotlight off Mr. Obama alone and turned it partly on himself, by putting conservative Rep. Paul Ryan and, by extension, his controversial budget on the GOP ticket.

“You really have to set up the hard contrast, between Romney and Obama and between Democrats and Republicans,” says Democratic strategist Peter Fenn. “I would go through the Romney-Ryan plan and do some serious truth-telling, really go through what’s true for the middle class.”

In fact, he says, New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie set up the “truth” theme in his keynote address at the Republican convention – that, as he put it, we Republicans are going to tell Americans the hard truth about the nation’s fiscal realities, and they, the Democrats, are going to “coddle” Americans with big government.

Obama and Co. can turn that truth theme back on the Republicans and be the fact-checkers, Mr. Fenn suggests. “Just look at the Republican platform,” he says. “It’s very explicit. Not only will it take us backwards, it’s going to hurt middle-class families. Romney and Ryan are trying to run from their platform, but excuse me, if they wanted to change it, they could have.”

The most incendiary part of the Republican platform centers on reproductive rights, in its support for a “human life amendment” that would ban abortions without exception and could outlaw certain forms of birth control. The Romney-Ryan ticket allows for exceptions on abortion in the case of rape, incest, and a threat to the life of the mother. So while the economy is Issue 1 for voters – and will dominate the Democrats’ message here – an important subtheme will be women’s rights. The convention speaking lineup includes Planned Parenthood president Cecile Richards, Georgetown law student and birth-control advocate Sandra Fluke, and Nancy Keenan, president of NARAL Pro-Choice America.

But there’s no doubt that the Republicans have turned the nation’s fiscal health into an effective campaign theme. The future of Medicare, in particular, has become a flash point. And Republicans have hit upon a line that is resonating: that Obama wants to “gut Medicare to pay for Obamacare.” Expect the Democrats to pound back with Vice President Biden’s new one-liner: that the GOP wants to replace Medicare with “Voucher-care,” a dig at the Romney-Ryan proposal to turn fee-for-service health care for seniors into a voucher-like system.

Still, that core question – “are you better off ...” – will provide the subtext for the Democrats’ three-day pep rally in Charlotte, their best opportunity to get the party faithful excited about the two-month slog ahead into Election Day. No one’s pretending they can recapture the electricity of 2008, when even loyal Republicans felt pride in seeing the election of America’s first black president.

Instead, the task for Democrats will be to get more specific about Obama’s plans while highlighting the contrasts with Romney.

“There’s no question that people are frustrated out there, and we’re not where anybody wants to be,” says Democratic consultant Mo Elleithee. “But Democrats can make a compelling case that we’ve turned a corner.”

He cites examples: The Dow Jones Industrial Average has come back from its plunge below 7000 early in Obama’s presidency to 13000. The nation has gone from 25 straight months of job loss to 29 straight months of job growth.

The “are you better off” feeding frenzy began on Sunday, when Maryland Gov. Martin O’Malley (D) answered the question with “no, but....”  Democrats have been back on their heels ever since, and the Republicans – many of whom are here in Charlotte for “counterprogramming” –have been pounding the point as hard as they can.

In pushing back, Mr. Elleithee says, the Democrats face two dangers: looking defensive and being dismissive of the challenges people face. “That’s why I think a healthy dose of recognition that we still have a long way to go is needed,” he says. “The message is not, ‘All is well.’ It’s that it’s getting better, and we can’t afford to make a U-turn.”

In a memo released Tuesday, Democratic strategists Stan Greenberg and James Carville wrote that Obama needs a good convention to build momentum and lock in what they see as a small lead over Romney. The two Democrats, who advised Bill Clinton in his first presidential victory, lay out a six-point to-do list for Obama:

• Go big and aspirational. “The more the president speaks about the future and how America and the middle class can come back – the smaller the Romney argument appears.”

• Convey this message: “I’ll tax the rich; he’ll cut their taxes.”

• Define Romney: “Romney is the leader of the party that says cutting taxes and protecting the special interest breaks of the biggest corporations and top earners are the best ways to help the economy and the middle class.”

• Embrace Obamacare. Specifically, they say, Obama should focus on how the Affordable Care Act makes health insurance more affordable.

• Speak for the vulnerable. Portray the Ryan budget as radically changing Medicare, raising taxes on the working poor, and cutting education.

• Remind the country about the GOP’s social agenda. The Romney-Ryan ticket wants to make the election all about the economy, but Democrats make gains with suburban and professional voters when they talk about women’s rights, Mr. Greenberg and Mr. Carville say.  

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