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Democrat Convention: Redefining Success (Fluke-style)

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Although many policy wonks were starved for details last week, and will be again this week, political conventions are properly understood as political theater. The big themes coming out of the conventions will provide structure to the remainder of the presidential contest. The policy details should (in theory) fall neatly under those broad themes, giving Americans a clear choice in November.

One of the major themes to come out of the Republican National Convention was that America should not demonize success; instead, we should celebrate and encourage it. Condoleezza Rice framed it this way:

“Ours has never been a narrative of grievance and entitlement. We have not believed that I am doing poorly because you are doing well. We have not been envious of one another and jealous of each other’s success. Ours has been a belief in opportunity and a constant battle – long and hard — to extend the benefits of the American dream to all – without regard to circumstances of birth.”

Mitt Romney was slightly less diplomatic:

“And yet the centerpiece of the President’s entire re-election campaign is attacking success. Is it any wonder that someone who attacks success has led the worst economic recovery since the Great Depression? In America, we celebrate success, we don't apologize for it.”

The challenge this week for President Obama and his fellow Democrats is twofold: 1) rebut the perception they do not believe individuals are responsible for their success; and, 2) convince Americans the Obama presidency has a record of success.

Neither will be easy.

Polling shows the enthusiasm for President Obama has waned, along with the economy. Hard pressed to find jobs, young voters are once again apathetic. Hung over from too much hope and all the wrong change, independents are now leaning toward the other guy.

Standing in front of Greek columns with his words broadcast to 40 million nationwide, then- Senator Barack Obama foreshadowed the challenges of his reelection campaign: “When Washington doesn't work, all its promises seem empty. If your hopes have been dashed again and again, then it's best to stop hoping and settle for what you already know.”

If President Obama were smart, he would revert to 2008’s soaring rhetoric (“government cannot solve all our problems”) and tout the achievements of individuals and businesses. He would hold them up as role models – what can happen in America if you work hard.

To convey that message successfully he would have to avoid taking credit for the success of others (“you didn’t build that”). Of course, that massive flip-flop would undermine his ability to claim credit for his government-first legislative agenda.

the President and his political advisors cannot find a way to explain their unexplainable position, they may try to avoid the issue all together. That will be tricky, though, because the success subplot even extends into the so-called war on women.

Last week, America’s first Hispanic female governor, New Mexico’s Susana Martinez, came across as a role model:

“… little girls often come up to me in the grocery store or in the mall. They look and they point and when they get the courage to come up, they ask, ``Are you Susana?'', and they run up and they give me a hug. I wonder, how do you know who I am? But they do. And these are little girls. It is in moments like these when I'm reminded that we each pave for a path, and for me, it is about paving a path for those little girls to follow.”

This week, the Democrats will counter Sandra Fluke, who came to prominence by advocating free birth control:

“…I was proud to share the stories of my friends at Georgetown Law who have suffered dire medical consequences because our student insurance does not cover contraception for the purpose of preventing pregnancy.”

As President Obama fondly reminds us, this election is a choice; and this is an incredibly stark choice. If personalized, it comes down to this: would you rather your daughter become a Susana Martinez or a Sandra Fluke? More broadly, one is a choice for the freedom of an individual to succeed based on merit, and the other is, as Paul Ryan said last week, “a country where everything is free but us.”


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