Battle scars and stripes


During the US political party conventions, much rhetoric has focused on the presidential candidates’ contrasting attitudes to enterprise

A GROUP CALLING itself Concerned Citizens of the Carolinas purchased a giant billboard on the freeway off-ramp into downtown Charlotte, against the skyline of the convention centre and sports arena where US President Barack Obama accepted the Democratic Party’s nomination on Thursday night.

“Obama Must Go! If you build it, he will come and take credit for it,” the billboard says; an example of the in-your-face antagonism of the US presidential election campaign.

In an interview with a local Virginia television station on the eve of his acceptance speech, Obama said he regretted the remark he made at the end of a long, hot day on the campaign trail in July: “If you have a business, you didn’t build that.” What the president meant, he said, was that all businesses rely on taxpayer-funded infrastructure and education. “Obviously I have regrets for my syntax,” Obama said. “But not for the point, because everyone who was there watching knows exactly what I was saying.”

Republicans, from the presidential candidate Mitt Romney on down, have construed Obama’s remark as proof of his disdain for free enterprise. They’ve beaten the quote like a dead horse, structuring their convention in Florida, the week before last, around it.

Americans “deserve better” than the sluggish recovery under Obama, Romney said in Tampa. A week later, in Charlotte, Obama said the path he was offering “may be harder, but it leads to a better place. And I’m asking you to choose that future.” Obama asked the country “to rally around a set of goals for your country . . . in manufacturing, energy, education, national security and the deficit; a real, achievable plan that will lead to new jobs, more opportunity, and rebuild this economy on a stronger foundation.”

Tampa was steeped in talk of “taking back America”. That may explain why Romney did not get the traditional postconvention opinion-poll “bounce” his advisers expected.

The mood in Charlotte was more lighthearted. Sandra Wise, a cheery 60-year-old delegate from northern Ohio, wore a straw hat festooned with campaign buttons. Asked why she is a Democrat, Wise replied, “This is the only way to live life compassionately and take care of your children and neighbours and make your town and community better.”

Over three days, Democratic speakers put Obama’s policies in context. Michelle Obama and former president Bill Clinton were Obama’s most effective advocates. Not only were delegates willing to cut Obama some slack for the sluggish recovery; they were unaffected by the “enthusiasm gap” of the world outside the conventions.

“Barack Obama’s election nomination [in 2008] was the realisation of a dream for me,” said Henry Marsh III, a 78-year-old delegate from Virginia who served three terms as Richmond’s first black mayor and is now a state senator. “I wept on the convention floor. This year is very frightening, as there’s a danger we could lose all the progress we’ve made. We have these economic difficulties because the Republicans blocked so much legislation . . . We need another four years of Obama.”

Romney has made professions of love to the business community, and has suggested that business experience should be required of all presidents, and that Obama is not qualified to be president because he has never worked in business. If he is elected, Romney promises to appoint businesspeople as cabinet secretaries. He made what could be considered a Freudian slip at a rally in Florida the night after his acceptance speech: “Paul Ryan and I understand how the economy works,” Romney said. “We understand how Washington works. We will reach across the aisle and find good people who, like us, want to make sure this company deals with its challenges. We’ll get America on track again.”

But Romney’s identification with big business does not endear him to all Americans. That he “looks like the guy who fired you” is a standard joke on late-night television. “If Mitt was Santa Claus, he’d fire the reindeer and outsource the elves,” Ted Strickland, a former governor of Ohio, said in Charlotte.

When Romney was a student at an exclusive school in Bloomfield Hills, Michigan, he led a posse that pinned down a gay comrade to cut his bleached locks. Days before, Romney had gone around muttering: “He can’t look like that.”

He showed the same intolerance of nonconformity as a lay pastor for the Mormon church in Boston. It cropped up again in Tampa, when convention rules were changed to exclude delegates loyal to the Texas representative Ron Paul. Romney had well over the requisite 1,144 delegates; he wanted a landslide of more than 2,000.

Paul refused to speak in Tampa as the Romney campaign insisted on vetting all speeches. The New Jersey governor, Chris Christie, a brash politician with the common touch, delivered one of his worst speeches because Romney’s people insisted he read from a teleprompter. Only Clint Eastwood, by virtue of his status as a Hollywood star, escaped vetting. His exchange with an empty chair that was supposed to represent Obama embarrassed Romney.

The conventions had some things in common. Ann Romney and Michelle Obama provided glamorous opening evenings. If these attractive, intelligent women love their husbands so much, the television audience of tens of millions was meant to think, there must be something good about them.

Speakers at both conventions recounted their families’ immigrant experience, parents or grandparents who worked as miners, waiters, maids and bartenders to see their progeny through college. Ann Romney’s tale of eating pasta and tuna off an ironing board with her husband became the stuff of late-night-television comedy, with actors playing liveried servants holding candelabra aloft behind them.

Obama resembles either Jimmy Carter or Franklin D Roosevelt, depending on your party. On Thursday night, Obama compared himself to FDR. Turning the US around “will require common effort, shared responsibility, and the kind of bold, persistent experimentation that Franklin Roosevelt pursued during the only crisis worse than this,” he said. But in his acceptance speech, Romney likened his opponent to Carter. “Every president since the Great Depression who came before the American people asking for a second term could look back at the past four years and say with satisfaction, ‘You are better off today than you were four years ago.’ Except Jimmy Carter. And except this president,” Romney said.

When the Democrats showed a recorded speech by Carter on the first night of their convention, the Romney campaign issued a statement that Obama “chose a fitting surrogate. From stagnant unemployment to a broken deficit pledge, both presidents left the country worse off than it was before they took office.” But Obama supporters compare him to FDR, who guided the US through the Great Depression and the second World War. One of the messages this week, in response to a taunt from Ryan, was that the US is better off being governed by Obama.

A tall, suntanned 72-year-old white man in a tropical shirt and gold-coloured watch looked for all the world like a Romney supporter on the floor of the Democratic convention. But JB Clark was a trade-union official and delegate from Florida. “I know there’s that question about ‘are you better off than four years ago?’,” Clark said. “We clearly are. You can wreck a car in no time. You can wreck a government in no time. It doesn’t take long. You look at FDR, who came in in ’32. By ’36 we were still in the Depression. By 1940 it was clearly better. It’s tough to turn a country around. The stock market is way up. Manufacturing is rising. The banking and mortgage industry is getting straightened out. We feel like things are better. I’d like to ask the Republicans: after eight years of George W Bush, were they better off?”

Why do conservatives so often give the impression they are more patriotic? Mike Zickar, a 43-year-old psychology professor and delegate from Ohio to Charlotte, said: “We’re less likely to plaster our houses and cars with flags, but we are patriotic in celebration and in trying to advance the US to be a better country,” said Zickar, who wore a squishy stars-and-stripes top hat. “Republicans think the country is perfect as it is. We know we always have to keep working.”