Reading between candidates' lines at conventions

Disappointed, dismayed and disgusted by a presidential campaign notable up to then mainly for its intellectual shallowness and resort to personal abuse, some voters may have looked hopefully to the candidates’ acceptance speeches at the national conventions for cogent expositions concerning the kind of America each hopes to build and how he’d go about doing that. 

Acceptance speeches aren’t the be-all and end-all of a campaign, nor even its most important moment. But they are occasions in that lengthy, highly artificial process when politicians at the peak of their game, standing before their parties and the nation, can give an overwhelmingly approving audience an approximate version of what they think.

And that’s what people paying close attention got this year. Beyond predictable swipes at his opponent, airy generalities, and the clichés of political rhetoric, President Barack Obama and former Massachusetts Gov. Mitt Romney, each in his own way, laid out his vision of America and invited other Americans to share it. 

To be sure, each served up an artfully crafted verbal construct designed to place himself in the best light and his opponent in the worst, while committing himself to no more than necessary in the way of specifics. Yet what each said — and perhaps didn’t say — was enlightening. 

Emphasis on economics

Urged to show voters more of the private Mitt Romney, the GOP candidate did open up a bit about his background and the role his Mormon faith has played in his life. But, inevitably perhaps, he gave more attention to a scathing critique of Obama’s four years as president, summed up in one of the address’s few lapidary sentences: “You know there’s something wrong with the kind of job he’s done … when the best feeling you had was the day you voted for him.”


Romney didn’t entirely ignore the social issues, but he limited his treatment of them to a single, short passage that managed to be both forceful and vague: “As president, I will protect the sanctity of life. I will honor the institution of marriage. And I will guarantee America’s first liberty, the freedom of religion.” 

The references to policies radically at odds with Obama’s on abortion, same-sex marriage, and the “HHS mandate” now being fought in court by dozens of Catholic and other religious groups were undoubtedly there, albeit veiled. 

It was, however, economic issues — especially jobs — that received the lion’s share of Romney’s attention. 

Contrasting himself with Obama (“Jobs to him are about government”), he stressed the need for tax and regulatory policies to encourage small business (“America’s engine of job growth”). And citing his own background as a highly successful businessman and entrepreneur, he declared his own reliance on free enterprise in glowing terms: “It’s the genius of the American free enterprise system — to harness the extraordinary creativity and talent and industry of the American people with a system that is dedicated to creating tomorrow’s prosperity rather than trying to redistribute today’s.” 

In sum, if Romney’s acceptance speech was not an oration for the ages, it did an adequate job of painting the choice between him and Obama in reasonably clear terms. 

Arguing for more time

Speaking a week later in Charlotte, N.C., to a Democratic party convention that had officially declared its support for abortion and same-sex marriage, President Obama said even less than Romney about the social issues — directly, in fact, nothing at all. Perhaps Obama felt his well-known backing for these causes made that unnecessary. 


Instead, he lashed out at a number of familiar bogeymen — companies that cost Americans job by outsourcing work overseas, insurance companies that won’t pay for little girls’ expensive heart surgery, lobbyists and special interests, and “the people with the $10 million checks who are trying to buy this election.” As to the nation’s economic woes, he accused the Republicans of offering no solution but tax cuts. 

Obama acknowledged his own failure to accomplish all that he promised four years ago, but he argued that he’d laid the basis for national recovery in that time and should get a second term to continue a job he now says will take “more than a few years.” In that connection, he proposed a set of goals for America in manufacturing, energy, education, national security, and deficit reduction, but offered few specifics on how he would realize them. 

“Yes, our path is harder — but it leads to a better place,” the president declared, assuring his listeners in conclusion, “Providence is with us.” 

Weighing their options

Conventions behind them, the candidates sped back to the campaign trail for the final push before election day. But for two brief moments — in Tampa and Charlotte — Obama and Romney spoke their minds, and in doing so they may have helped some Americans make up theirs. 

The options presented by what was said — and not said—in the acceptance speeches could be summed up like this: a choice between a successful businessman and problem-solving administrator committed to free enterprise and moderately conservative on social issues, and a skillful politician who halted the nation’s economic collapse early in his first term, has yet to get the economy wholly back on track, and backs a liberal agenda on social issues that he doesn’t care to talk about too much while seeking re-election. What the nation makes of that we’ll find out Nov. 6.

Russell Shaw is an OSV contributing editor.