An undecided voter on President Obama's convention

It's the Democrats. What could possibly go wrong?
Written by David Gewirtz, Senior Contributing Editor

This week, the Democrats held their convention. As you know, last week I covered the Republican convention in-depth. As an undecided voter, I was hoping that a clear winner would emerge, a party I could truly feel comfortable supporting.

Unfortunately, the only thing last week's GOP convention and this week's Democratic convention convinced me of is that I can't blindly follow one party or another. Each has points worthy of consideration, and each has policies and doctrines that make my skin crawl.

See also: Diary of an undecided voter (GOP convention edition)

Before the convention, I was worried about whether or not I'd have much to say about the Democrats. After all, President Obama and VP Biden are now well-known quantities as compared to the Republican newcomers.

I didn't have to worry. It's the Democrats. What could possibly go wrong?

Controversy over the party platform

The Democrats started off Tuesday night with a strong lineup. But then, Wednesday morning, it all went off the rails.

Parties have what are called "platforms," essentially the written mission statements of what the party stands for and what's important. Not many voters read the platforms, but they're used almost the same way we'd use a corporate backgrounder -- they provide guidance on the values and direction of the party.

Well, apparently someone in the Democratic party decided to replace the word "God" with the word "faith" and all hell broke loose. Speaking strictly personally, I believe in the separation of church and state. While everyone is entitled to their personal devotion, I don't think God belongs in any discussion of governance.

Apparently, I'm in the minority, because once "God" became "faith," the party faithful parted down the middle, ayes became boos, and the Republicans got yet more juicy talking points.

The Democratic party leadership quickly changed the platform back to include "God," and claimed it was all a typo, sort of like an act of God. You know, not their fault.

Then there was the question of whether the Democratic party considered Jerusalem the capital of Israel. You can't make this stuff up.

I'd rather make sure the 161 citizens in Jerusalem, Ohio can stay above the poverty line than worry about whether an American political party thinks Jerusalem is the capital of a sovereign state that's not ours. After all, everyone -- everyone -- in the Middle East is pretty much crazy. Let's get our own house in order first.

That hopey changey thing

Back in 2008, Candidate Obama had some of the best political slogans in history. "Yes we can" and "Change we can believe in." Sadly, since it's not clear the Democrats can claim they were fully successful at "yes we can," this year's campaign slogan is "Forward."

That's it. Forward. Not forward to the future, not forward to success, not forward to something this or even forward to something that. Just. Plain. Forward.

The signage in the crowd was equally bizarre. Although there are a few delegates who bring their own signs, convention signage is always a scripted affair. This time, about half the delegates held up blue signs saying "Forward." The other half had not-quite-red signs saying "Not back."

Seriously. "Not back." President Obama has almost constantly (and to some substantial degree, rightly) blamed our current economic woes on the preceding President. He's the one who seems to look back the most.

Given that the Republican ticket consists of relative newcomers (and -- with the exception of Condi Rice -- very few Bushies), it's not clear that a credible claim can be made that the GOP is looking back.

The President's record is one thing. But when it comes to being inspiring, it's not clear that President Obama holds a candle to Candidate Obama.

How hard could it have been to come up with something that's a little more somethin' somethin' than "Forward"?

Dead man talking

I love politics, but I hate tribute videos. Watching them always seems like a chore, but the Dems fielded a video tribute to former Massachusetts senator Ted Kennedy that was actually quite good.

Kennedy is interesting, not just because of his long service in the Senate, and not because of the Kennedy legend and legacy, but because Mitt Romney ran against Ted Kennedy in 1994. Romney was defeated, of course, but a decade later went on to win the governorship of Massachusetts.

The interesting takeaway, beyond a reminder of just how good a pol Kennedy really was, is how liberal Romney sounded then by comparison to today. If you didn't know Romney was a Republican and you played back some of his statements, you'd be sure you were listening to another Democrat.

I guess that's change you can believe in. Or something.

Next up, the opening speakers: Rahm Emanuel and a guy named Castro.

Rahm Emanuel

Rahm Emanuel is the current Mayor of Chicago and President Obama's former White House Chief of Staff. I've always liked Emanuel because he's capable of some of the most colorful back room profanity of any serving politician -- and as a master of the colorfully profane myself, I can appreciate that.

Although Emanuel was unlikely to move the election favorability meter (those who love him love him, and those who hate him hate him), he was bound to be a fun watch.

Sadly, Emanuel was neither profane nor inspring. He essentially went down the laundry list of the various Obama administration's claimed accomplishments (health care, auto industry bailout, national security) with a set of shout-outs to battleground states like Ohio.

What was interesting in Emanuel's speech was the difference in tone between the typical GOP convention speech of last week and the Democratic convention. The GOP convention was all about stopping what they call Obamacare, and about how nothing has been done since Obama took office.

The incumbent has something of an advantage, so this convention was structured around the claimed successes of the last four years on the part of the serving president.

Mayor Julian Castro

No matter what they try to do, the Democrats always manage to screw up their signals to mainstream Americans. There's no doubt that San Antonio Mayor Julian Castro is a competent American politician, and I'm sure he'd like a future in national politics.

But, c'mon folks. How hard would it have been to avoid having a man named "Castro" give the keynote speech for the Democrats? Seriously? Doesn't anyone think these things through?

All during Obama's presidency, the Dems have been fighting the misapplied labels of "socialism" and even "communism" -- and then they keynote their convention with a man named Castro.

Think about it. What if a Mayor Gus Hitler stood up to give the Republican keynote? It would be too easy. People would be freaking out in the media for weeks.

We are not our parents, our ancestors, or our last names. But names are powerful and carry strong associations. It would be a shame to see this nice young man denied the opportunity to give an important speech. It would be equally sad to see voters scared away from voting for a candidate, not for a valid reason, but because the opposition decided to harp on how his keynote speech was given by a man named Castro.

Keynote addresses can be breakout events. I remember watching the entirely uninspired Democratic convention in 2004 (when John Kerry was the nominee). I had never heard of an obscure Illinois state senator named Barack Obama, but as a politics junky, I figured I'd sit through yet another boring keynote.

By the time Obama had finished his amazing speech (and you had to admit it was, no matter which party you belonged to), I remember turning to my then-future wife and telling her, "I think we just met a future president." Four years later, Barack Obama, with just two years of U.S. Senate experience, won the presidential election.

I strongly believe it was that keynote that put Obama on the path to the White House. On the other hand, back in 1988, an unknown Bill Clinton gave a keynote speech so bad, and so long, that the crowd applauded and cheered when it was over. Of course, four years after that, Bill Clinton was also on the road to the White House.

Sadly, Julian Castro is no Barack Obama. Oh, the young mayor gave a great speech. I'm sure we'll see more of him. He fed the audience all the red meat they could possibly want -- which, ultimately, is the job of a political speech.

But the difference between the keynote speech for President Obama's reelection convention and the keynote speech given by an unknown state senator named Obama was vast. Back in 2004, the speech Obama gave was powerful, uplifting, inspiring -- and almost completely devoid of red meat.

That Obama was a man who could be a leader of all Americans, not just blue state Americans. That Obama was a man who could see the diversity of the American population and try to unite it. That Obama was a man who could reach across party boundaries for a better future. That Obama was a man who could look forward to change with hope.

That was the Barack Obama of eight years ago.

Today's President Obama is a man more seasoned, more jaded, more worn down by the realities of leadership, not just the promise of hope.

Whether we return this Obama, the older, grayer, wearier Obama to the White House, or give the business executive the key to the ultimate executive suite, will be a direct function of how close most Americans feel President Obama got to the dreams and promises of his younger self.

Next up: Michelle Obama

Michelle Obama

Okay, let's start with the guns. I lift weights and I gotta tell you, I wish I had arms like Michelle Obama's. Those are some seriously sculpted muscles. It's kind of cool having a First Lady who probably has more upper arm strength than I do (and that's saying a lot).

In terms of speaking skill, Michelle Obama was better than I remember. Clearly, four years of being First Lady has upped her game. She's able to be both personable and strong, self-deprecating and confident.

Her opening wasn't about her, or her husband, their families or their backgrounds (although that would come later). Her opening was about individual Americans and the greatness we see every day, in individual acts of courage, bravery, and just getting through the day.

I liked that a lot. I don't think of America as strong because we have the biggest corporations or the largest banks. I think of America a strong because our citizens have the biggest hearts, the deepest souls, and -- what? They've renewed both Dexter and Glee again?

Oh, sorry, where was I? Oh yeah, Americans also have the shallowest attention spans, so no matter what a politician spews -- and make no mistake, Michelle Obama is as much a pol as Hillary Clinton -- Americans often forget where we were just a few years ago.

Michelle Obama, and the other speakers we've heard from, often talk about President Obama's role in keeping the American auto industry afloat. They talk about the creation of four million new jobs since the President took office.

But they conveniently forget the incredible amount America spent on bailing out banks, sending billions to offshore interests. They conveniently forget that four million new jobs in four years doesn't put America's unemployed ahead. Instead, since we need two million new jobs a year just to handle population growth, four million new jobs simply means we're slipping a little less and a greater percentage of Americans are still without work.

When they talk about the Patient Protection and Affordable Care Act (what the GOP calls "Obamacare"), Michelle Obama and the other convention speakers conveniently forget about the mandate that we all buy into health insurance programs that are still not affordable, run by companies that are still not ethical.

They conveniently forget that the plan runs to so many pages that no American really understands what it all means. Michelle Obama and the other convention speakers also conveniently forget that many of the promises of the PPACA don't actually go into effect for a few years -- if they survive repeal efforts and legislative neutering.

There is no doubt that some of the so-called liberal programs that America provides to its citizens gives Americans a leg up, and helps them where they'd otherwise not be able to achieve. Michelle Obama talked about when she and Barack were "so young, so in love, and so in debt" from student loans. And she talked about the various education programs the Obama administration pushed forward to help students.

But she seemed to have conveniently forgotten that the almost incomprehensible level of debt the United States is now under is a result of the Obama administration's decisions -- and how that debt is also going to be a huge monkey on the back of every member of future generations.

Although the First Lady did not feed raw meat to the attended masses, she is a master of allusion. She succeeded admirably in contrasting her husband with Mr. Romney, both in term of background and in values.

I will say this: Michelle Obama can give a speech. I'm not a fan of the obligatory spousal testimony, but Mrs. Obama's got some serious chops.

Elizabeth Warren

One of the speakers I was most looking forward to hearing was Elizabeth Warren. Professor Warren is a candidate for Senate in Massachusetts. She's campaigning for the seat that Scott Brown won after Ted Kennedy died, the same seat that Mitt Romney lost to Ted Kennedy way back in the early 1990s.

That's not what makes her interesting, though. What makes Elizabeth Warren interesting has been her fight for middle class protections.

She's a former Havard Law professor and an expert in bankruptcy. She headed up the Congressional Oversight Panel for TARP -- one of the big bailouts that took place in late 2008 and early 2009. More interestingly, she was also the architect -- against incredible opposition -- of the newly formed U.S. Consumer Financial Protection Bureau.

Although her speech clearly had the fingerprints of a professional speech writer, Warren is one of the few politicians that seems to understand the meaning of the middle class.

Let me explain that for a moment. Most politicians talk about the importance of the middle class, and that's normally interpreted as being because there are so many people in it -- it's the single largest constituency.

But Warren understands something my research and analysis has confirmed through computer modeling: the U.S. economy can't survive without a strong middle class.

Best line: "We're Americans. We celebrate success. We just don't want the game to be rigged."

It's that simple, really. If we lose the middle class, our economy dives. If you've ever wondered why China is trying so hard to build up its middle class, it's not because those old communists think it's the right thing to do. No, it's because they understand that the middle class is the engine, the motor, the central processing unit of economic growth.

The middle class is both the single biggest consuming category as well as the single biggest production category in our economy. Let's use a car analogy for a moment. No matter how strong your engine is, if it can't get enough air in, or exhaust that air back out, it won't run. If you have big intake scoops but only a tiny, constricted exhaust line, I don't care how many horseys you have, your engine will stumble and choke.

That's the same with the middle class. We can't just get them to buy, buy, buy and think all will be good with the world. After a while, families will simply run out of cash and run out of credit. To make the engine run, they must also make money, they must be healthy, and they must thrive.

Then it becomes a cycle. Money comes in, money goes out, and economies thrive. That's why we need to create jobs in America. In America. It's the only way we'll be able to keep the engine running.

Anyway, Warren's speech (beyond the obviously coached parts) was one of the few I've seen that reflected that understanding between the middle class and the future of America.

Sure, families that are hurting want to hear they're getting help, but without a strong middle class, even our millionaires and billionaires will eventually find themselves marooned. Sure, they'll have enough money to live well and survive. But the world around them won't be one they'll like, and they won't be able to safely take the family on a road trip in a station wagon across the country (as Mitt and Ann Romney did when they were young).

I'd keep an eye on Warren. The woman who has hair a little like Granny from the Beverly Hillbillies may or may not have the drive to be President, but she'll only be 67 in 2016.

Next: Bill Clinton

Bill Clinton

There is nothing -- nothing -- in politics quite like a Bill Clinton speech, with the possible exception of those by Ronald Reagan.

Since we'll never again have the pleasure of listening to a new Reagan speech, the closest we may ever get to a new peak speech experience is a Bill Clinton speech at a national convention.

Here's a fun fact: did you know that Bill Clinton has spoken at every Democratic presidential convention since 1980? He's gotten better at giving speeches over the years, so Wednesday night was something to look forward to. It's also the first time, according to David Gergen, that a former president has nominated a current president.

There is also no politician alive that so visibly derives life force from the crowd he's addressing. When Bill Clinton stepped onto the stage Wednesday night to unrestrained cheering, you could almost see his arteries inflate, his blood flow increase. The strength of the crowd clearly gives Clinton strength, almost like Venom powers up Batman's Bane, but in a good way.

Many people don't realize this, but after Bill Clinton and the senior George Bush ran against each other in a brutal campaign, the two men, years out of office, have been working together on a variety of important humanitarian clauses -- and have even become friends.

I'm mentioning this because Mr. Clinton spoke at length about the issue of bipartisanship and cooperation, and how important it is for the growth of this country. He talked about how he worked with President Reagan and how the parties would disagree, but still focus on getting the job done.

Great quote: "We believe, 'we're all in this together,' is a far better philosophy than, 'you're on your own.'"

This is an important message. I often fault the Democrats for buckling under pressure from the Republicans for, well, just about any reason. But one of my biggest worries going forward is the political doctrine we're seeing more and more in Washington, that of win at any price.

Individual Americans can't withstand the "any price" price, because it usually comes out of their pocketbooks and their ability to feed their families. I remember, back in 2010, that I was personally infuriated when I heard Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell say, "Our top political priority over the next two years should be to deny President Obama a second term."

This, by the way, is why I don't support any political party. They don't deserve my support. In a country and at a time when millions of Americans were not only out of work, but losing their homes, this was the articulated agenda of one of our top leaders.

In a time of highly escalated partisanship, it's important to remind our leaders that they are Americans first and members of their political parties second.

In last week's analysis of the Republican convention, a reader exploded in the comments about the fact that I won't choose an ideology. His claim was that ideology is all that matters.

This is why I disagree. When all that matters is ideology, we lose sight of reality. I'd rather be ideologically flexible and make sure Americans keep their homes and jobs, than ideologically pure and watch people drown in suffering.

And that's why President Clinton's discussion of a time when cooperation was possible was so important. No matter which candidate wins in America, America itself can only win if we cooperate to create a stronger future.

One of my core recommendations for how to save jobs in How To Save Jobs (free PDF download) was to increase community college reach, and to link the community college system with job creation. So far, of all the speakers at both the GOP and the Democratic conventions, Bill Clinton was the only speaker who made that link a key point.

He correctly stated that while there are many Americans in need of jobs, there are also millions of jobs that are open and unfilled because there aren't enough Americans with the specific skills needed to fill them. He also correctly stated that our education system needs to be supported so people can afford to get the training to fill those jobs.

It's impossible for anyone to truly encapsulate a Bill Clinton speech in a few paragraphs, but I can share with you my favorite statement of the speech, and that will give you a flavor for why this man is still, after all these years, such a master of public address:

"Now people ask me all the time, how did we get four surplus budgets in a row. What new idea did we bring to Washington? I always give a one word answer: Arithmetic."

Next: Where's Hillary? Plus Joe Biden.

Where's Hillary?

One of the biggest questions of the convention -- where's Hillary? -- actually has a relatively straightforward answer. No, it's not that she's angry at Barack (or Bill, for that matter). In fact, she's in Asia, in the small island nation of East Timor. She's actually prohibited by Federal law from attending political activities.

Yep, the Hatch Act of 1939 rears its head once again. For those of you who haven't been following along since 2007, I wrote extensively about the Hatch Act as it pertained to White House use of email accounts for Where Have All the Emails Gone? (free PDF download).

The Hatch Act is a law (in some ways a very obsolete law) that dictates the separation of political activities with governing activities. Mrs. Clinton, by virtue of being SecState, is subject to both Hatch Act restrictions and State Department policies and can't attend.

That's also why we didn't hear from Condi Rice when she was President Bush's Secretary of State.

John Kerry

Unfortunately, while waiting for Biden to speak, we had to endure John Kerry. If I never have to see or hear John Kerry speak again, it'll be too soon. As powerful and masterful as Bill Clinton is, John Kerry is the opposite.

In fact, it wasn't until I suffered through yet another John Kerry speech Thursday night (why won't the Democrats learn to keep him sidelined?), that I realized Obama might have a real chance of winning.

That's because, weirdly enough, John Kerry reminds me of Mitt Romney. It's not just because they're two long-faced men of privilege from Massachusetts, but because they both seem many steps removed from truly identifying and resonating with the needs of most Americans.

Joe Biden

Let's be clear about two things. First, Vice President Joe Biden is the gift that keeps on giving to political pundits. He's often a little too free with what he says, which gives us material to riff on for days.

But the second fact is one many people don't recognize: Biden knows his stuff. The single most important thing you need to know about Biden is that, in the event of a tragedy, he could very competently take over the presidency. Biden is a master of foreign policy and national security and has long been a champion of the middle class.

Although he's never had the public persona chops to make it to the White House on his own, he'd undoubtedly make an exceptional president. I've seen the work he's done over the years and he's one of America's elder statesmen, in the true sense of the term.

That said, when Biden stands up to give a public speech, anything can happen. As a political sports fan, I was definitely looking forward to this one.

Talking of Romney's recommendation a few years ago that the auto industry be allowed to fail, Biden said, "The Bain way may bring your firm the highest profits, but it's not the way to lead the country from the highest office."

I actually strongly disagreed with Mitt Romney's November 18, 2008 New York Times editorial, "Let Detroit Go Bankrupt".

While the bankruptcy process may have guided America's once-great auto makers through to a new beginning, it also could have decimated them. The issue goes beyond those companies, though, because that industry has such a reach economically (and emotionally) throughout America. If you think we were fighting a depression back then, imagine just how depressed we would have been if we'd lost GM and Chrysler.

Worse, if GM and Chrysler died, so would have all the aftermarkets that orbit them, from parts makers to mechanics to dealers. And if the aftermarket fell, that would make it far harder for Ford to get parts and resources, so it's likely that Ford would have collapsed simply as a result of the industry around it collapsing.

It's still not clear whether or not the Cash for Clunkers program was a good idea and whether we're really going to see an upside from our days owning Government Motors, but I have to agree with Biden that Romney's idea of letting the auto industry die was penny-wise but pound-foolish.

Speaking of the Bin Laden takedown, Biden also made the only truly strong counterterrorism message I've heard from either party, "If you attack innocent Americans, we will follow you to the end of the earth."

It is interesting that the Democrats this time, rather than the Republicans, are the ones with the seasoned foreign policy and military leaders. That's different from the Bush years, where so many of their senior officials had seen war after war and managed them at a national level.

Great quote: "It's never been a safe bet to bet against the American people. We have no intention of downsizing the American dream."

Next: President Obama and some final thoughts.

Barack Obama

Finally, near the end of Thursday night, it was time for the President to step up to the podium. By this time, we already knew what he'd be claiming as accomplishments: the auto industry bailout, the healthcare reform legislation, the death of Osama bin Laden, an increase in job creation, a claimed turnaround of the economy.

But the entire theme of the convention was "forward," so where would the man who wanted to remain President take the dialog? Could he make the case that he was the better choice than Mitt Romney? Could he make the case that he did a good job these last four years? And how would that barely-experienced "hopey-changey" candidate present himself once he's had four years of the most brutal on-the-job training?

As I listened to the President, I noticed a theme I haven't seen in years being introduced back into the dialog: the importance of American manufacturing. Obama talked about the manufacturing jobs that have come back to the United States after being outsourced. Now, admittedly, there are still a lot more jobs being sent overseas than being brought home, but it's a start.

Even though many of us in the information industry are aware of the importance of what Steve Jobs once called knowledge workers, it's clear that unless America actually builds things, we're giving up our strength to foreign competitors. Unless we actually control our means of production, we are destined to become vassals to the large manufacturing nations.

That's why statements by Obama like "We are doing what America does best. We are making things again," are so important.

Another issue I don't recall Governor Romney bringing up is climate change. According to Obama, "Climate change is not a hoax." That's pretty obvious to almost anyone with eyes. Of course, the reasons for the changes and the methods of dealing with them are subject to enormous debate, but we're going to have to pay attention to this issue in future years.

It's clear that four years have seasoned Obama. It's almost painful watching old YouTube videos of the younger man talking about cooperation and how the parties will get along, and then watching this man, after four years in the White House, talk about the realities of the pushbacks from Congress.

On the other hand, with that seasoning in hand, Obama was able to clearly differentiate himself from the Governor on the area of foreign affairs, describing his competitors as, "They're...new." Foreign affairs were barely mentioned by Mr. Romney or Mr. Ryan, where President Obama clearly discussed issues of Iraq, Afghanistan, and Iran.

He also reflected on the challenges in the United States and how it's time to spend on our own infrastructure, by saying "It's time to do some nation-building right here at home."

Neither Biden nor Obama truly answered how they'd pay for all the social programs they support, but instead spent considerable time trying to show that the opposition couldn't pay for debt reduction, either. While they criticized the Romney version of trickle-down economics, they didn't spend nearly as much time and attention on how they'd stop borrowing from China and how they'd cover the costs of these programs.

Final thoughts

President Obama didn't win my vote with his speech, and neither did any of the other speakers. Nor did they move the needle any closer to their side. I think I'll need to see how the candidates debate each other, watch them side-by-side, to truly get the measure of who I think would be better for America.

But I did notice one very interesting difference between the two parties: the Obama speech was very inclusive of all Americans and the Romney speech was very angry about the Democrats. It was a very different tone, one coming from a President and one coming from someone who'd very much like to be President.

I find myself getting pissed because the Dems want to pay for this social program or that social program, this entitlement or that entitlement, this benefit or that benefit.

They're all valid and helpful, but where's the money coming from? What I don't hear is whether the actual systems we have in place are working, how we can keep costs down, and how we can filter the enormous waste out of the system.

The Democrats honorably want to help Americans, but they don't seem willing to fight the hard fights with the people they're so willing to keep paying off.

By contrast, the Republicans don't seem to want to pay for much (except unreasonably high tax breaks for the super wealthy), and seem willing to watch most Americans suffer if it means they get to spout their ideology and keep their cash.

I keep thinking the question is whether we want a CEO to run the largest enterprise in the world, or whether we want someone more focused on the well being of that enterprise's constituents? I really don't know, because the enterprise itself can't be bankrupted, or it will help no one. A sinking ship can't carry either its passengers or its crew.

On the other hand, CEOs serve to generate shareholder value and, in the case of America, those shareholders are usually the superwealthy individuals and corporations. Which leaves the rest of us out of the loop.

And so, here's what we're looking at. The Democrats are more inclusive and the Republicans more angry. The Democrats have social programs to show for their time in office and the Republicans want to repeal them. The Democrats have skyrocketed the debt and the Republicans want to stop spending on almost everything except military expansion.

The Democrats had two years where they ran everything and accomplished nothing. The Republicans had eight years in office, where they almost destroyed everything. Which is worse?

As you can see, I'm still not a fan of either party. There are only a few events left before the election, and I'm left with this very disturbing realization: come January 20 next year, either Barack Obama or Mitt Romney will be president.

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