The odd thing about elections is that they’re so easily sidetracked. Major issues give way to pivotal moments that wouldn’t warrant a page five headline in normal times. Michael Dukakis’ now infamous joyride on an M1 Abrams tank in 1988 comes to mind. Few, if anybody, really remembers what Dukakis had to say in ’88 but the image is still there – slightly silly – definitely un-presidential. It’s the simple things that define an election. The thing is most concepts are just too complex to explain in a sound byte or a television ad. Thus, candidates have to distill a broad spectrum of ideas into one overwhelming message and hope it sticks to the electorate. Franklin Delano Roosevelt did it with The New Deal, John Kennedy with The New Frontier and in 2008, Hope and Change carried Barack Obama to the White House. The problem is these encapsulated messages are fragile creatures, and like Humpty Dumpty, if they shatter, there’s no way to pick up the pieces.
There’s not a lot of talk about Hope and Change in the Obama camp these days. The mood is more hunkered-down. The Democratic National Convention still has the hoopla, but the party atmosphere of 2008 is gone. People are serious. This isn’t going to be a skate to November like it was last time. There’s a broad admission that, “We’re not there yet.” and there’s a lot of work to do.
Tomorrow, the Democrats bring out the big guns – Bill Clinton and the president himself. Barack Obama doesn’t need to convert the faithful anymore; he needs to reconvert the sceptics. It’s a difficult situation. In 2008, Obama’s message was one simple idea — I am the solution. Here in 2012, it’s more complicated than that. He’s got to tell the electorate that he is indeed still the solution, but he also has to convince them that he’s not actually the problem. Meanwhile, the Republicans have branded their guy a matte finish Mr. Fix-it. No gloss, no gleam, just a clear picture of a repairman who can spot-mend the immediate mess and hold the line until Christie and Ryan and Rubio are ready to take over.
So far, there has been no defining moment in this election, but there will be. If Obama is smart — and I know he is — he will stay away from going toe to toe with the Republicans. He needs to bring on the glitter, paint the Republicans as joyless suits and ties, and rekindle those personal flames that were burning election night four years ago. If he does that, he’ll probably get four more years; if he doesn’t, he can get busy planning his library.