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A tale of two political party conventions

Jonathan P Hicks | 9/5/2012, 6:38 p.m.
It's time to make youth unemployment the focus of our national attention

CHARLOTTE, N.C.--It would be difficult to confront two more contrasting images.

The array of people here at the Democratic National Convention reflects the diversity that showcases an America familiar to so many people. Compared to the Republican convention in Tampa, Fla., it is as different a gathering as one could possibly imagine. It is literally a reflection of two different worlds.

This is a vibrant convention with the full spectrum of the nation's citizenry. There is an almost Mardi Gras quality to walking the streets near the convention center. It is, to say the least, an exhibition of the exuberant and the offbeat, an atmosphere of celebration as well as of protest. It is a convention that is rich in diversity, in emotion and in fervor. It is America.

On the other hand, watching the delegates who convened in Tampa last week seemed very much like looking at the crowd that nominated Wendell Willkie for president at the Republican convention in 1940. It was utterly white and, by comparison, almost dour. The only sparks of life and elation came when the Republicans were denouncing the president of the United States. Not a pretty or inspiring picture.

It is not just that the two conventions reflect differences in terms of the faces of the participants. There is also a strong, substantive difference in the way public policy issues have been articulated.

Take health care. In Tampa, the Republicans lambasted President Barack Obama's health care reform as though it amounted to some sort of poisonous gas invading the country. The very mention of "Obamacare" was greeted with deafening boos and hisses at every turn. Apart from that, there was little to nothing offered by the Republicans in the way of vision on any topic, let alone presenting any details about their health care policy.

In contrast, the Democrats here in Charlotte not only embraced the Affordable Care Act they saluted it and cheered each time a speaker extolled its virtues. They presented real-life examples of how the president's initiative had helped them and their families. They put a human face on the need for health care coverage. And for the first time, the Democrats have finally started to take ownership and champion this landmark piece of legislation. It was at though they were at long last willing to say, "We passed health care reform and we're proud of it."

In both conventions, there has been a series of compelling personal narratives about American grit and determination, with speaker after speaker telling stories about how they had succeeded after difficult family histories. The difference is that, in Tampa, the stories were rarely, if ever, accompanied by any passion for Mitt Romney. Their speakers were motivated more by a desire to see Obama lose, rather than by a passion to see Romney win.

The contrast here is that the delegates and speakers are practically giddy in their support of Obama, yet it is a fervor that is different from that of four years ago. The Democrats here are demonstrating a mature, sober view of what is at stake in the re-election of Barack Obama.

Another sharp difference has been in the way some of the major speakers sought to display their fluency with middle-class Americans. In Tampa, there was Ann Romney offering a fine speech presenting a box-seat view of life with her young husband, Mitt. Somehow, however, being relegated to a newlywed life of tuna fish and pasta with the privileged son of the head of a major American automobile company and governor does not a middle-class existence make.

By comparison, Michelle Obama's reminiscences of life with a husband who, like her, confronted mountainous student loans, not to mention his owning an automobile on its last leg, offered a legitimate reflection of working-class America--one that anyone can relate to.

And therein lies the major difference between the two conventions. One offered a perspective of 21st century America that seemed as authentic as a display of mannequins in a department store display window. The other presented a closer version of the challenges and longings, the aspirations and determination of an America that many of its citizens can easily relate to.