For political hacks at modern party conventions, the answer to the Reagan Question—Are you better off than you were four years ago?—should be knee-jerk, no matter the party, no matter the year. This year? Any comatose Republican will say the answer is no. Any Democrat should involuntarily say, as Dick Harpootlian—the scabrous South Carolina Democrat, said to me: “Absofuckinglutely.” Yet, there was Maryland governor Martin O’Malley on CBS, saying, “No, but that’s not the question of this convention.” And David Axelrod, emptying a clip of blanks on Fox News: “Here’s what I can say, we’re in a better position . . .” On the Daily Show, Jon Stewart zipped through a conga line of prominent Democrats lurching here and there at the question.
For reasons that befuddle outsiders and delight the G.O.P. rank and file, the modern Democratic Party and the president himself long ago decided that buying into the Republican frame on any issue was easier than putting in the donkey work of crafting their own message. Watching the health care debate a few years ago was a marvel. The Republicans would mischievously move the goalposts around the playing field—single payer, public option, insurance exchanges, new tax, pay as you go, $716 billion in Medicare savings—and the Democratic leadership would race after each week’s nonce solution like a kitten pouncing on shadows.
In 2010, Obama put forward a middle-class tax cut, a classic political trick. How could Republicans oppose a tax cut! John Boehner, then minority leader, flipped out and thoughtlessly said, “If the only option I have is to vote for some of those tax reductions, I’ll vote for them.” But Senator Mitch McConnell slapped Boehner down and banished him from the microphones for the crucial weekend. He knew Democrats were capable of much more surrendering, so he boldly threatened total rejection—of a free-standing tax cut—unless it was linked to more tax cuts for the wealthy. As he announced his opposition to middle-class tax cuts at a press conference, a tiny grin emerged from deep inside one of his several flaccid faces. As usual, the Democrats panicked and McConnell prevailed.
The genius of the Republican Party is that it wins most of its issue fights via its brilliant media strategy. But that advantage is amplified by the fact that its members understand in their bones what their ideology is and how to answer the dopey bunny questions asked by the media. But Democrats, even top Obama aides, instinctively assume the Republican narrative as the basis of reality (we are worse off now than four years ago), then sputter and hem before finally coughing out what any PR intern knows is the answer (and even then without resolve): “Oh, wait, better off than four years ago? Uh, okay, then, hmmm. Ha! Uh, that would be a ‘yes,’ or so I have read.”
Yesterday, after Democrats took some heat about erasing the words God and Jerusalem from the platform, the familiar panic and lack of planning set in. Apparently, Obama himself ordered that someone—it turned out to be Ted Strickland’s job, since he’s a pastor—smear some rhetorical paste on the already-stale bread that forms the planks of any party platform. Some references to “God” were sprinkled in, along with a “Jerusalem is the capital of Israel.” The latter phrase is just another of the many tiresome things that get said quadrennially at conventions. While politically loaded, they don’t mean whole lot in terms of policy. They’re the equivalent of “two-state solution” or “pre-1967 borders.”
Yet if you look at video of the moment when these changes were put to a vote (starting at about the one-minute mark), it appears—and this is the most forgiving possible interpretation—that delegates on the floor thought that some new, undebated declaration about Israel was being slipped into the platform. Since many of the delegates are Arab-Americans or aren’t up to date with the rituals of Israeli–Palestinian kabuki, they shouted “No!” The nos were as loud as the ayes. Strickland looked well, stricken, while Los Angeles mayor Antonio Villaraigosa, holding the gavel, was visibly freaking out. He called for the vote again, clearing indicating to the “aye” crowd to kick it up a decibel. But the Democrats on the floor didn’t quite understand that they were being invited to shout down a wing of the party that was making them look like morons, and the result was the same. Villaraigosa’s face became a facial-recognition homework assignment: 50 Shades of Are You Fucking Kidding Me, people?
Republicans instinctively know to shout over Tea Party types when they get too black helicopter-y or vaguely racial. But by the time Villaraigosa had regained control of the room, the little movie of the moment was raining down over the Internet like balloons from the rafters: Three times, Democrats shouted down God in a loud voice vote! Did no Democrat plan for this? Try to quietly get the delegates to understand what would be happening? And who were the people on the platform committee who blue-penciled God and Jerusalem out of the language the party dusts off every four years?
Too late. Bill Clinton’s words later that night are now competing with breathtaking video of an entire convention booing God. I believe that’s what PR flacks call a terrible, horrible, no good, very bad optic.