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Commentary: Reflecting on the political conventions

Twenty years ago, I had to go to a dinner at a fancy restaurant in Northville on the last night of that year’s Republican National Convention, which nominated then-President George H.W. Bush.

While I waited for my table, I watched a couple seated at the bar, watching the convention. From their conversation, they were clearly Republicans. At some point the man said to the woman, “Well, that’s all right. We’ll be back in in four years.”

I knew right then that President  Bush was going to lose that election. This year I am not at all certain who is going to win in November. Far fewer people watch conventions these days, and my guess is that if there is still a TV in that restaurant bar, it might have been tuned to some sports channel last night.

But I am certain of this: It would be hard to find anyone who didn’t think the Democrats had, surprisingly, a much better convention than the Republicans. There were two of the most stunning political speeches in recent memory, those by Michelle Obama and former President Clinton.

Joe Biden’s speech was far stronger than expected, and President Obama’s would have been seen as eloquent in any other year, one in which he didn’t have to compete with Bill Clinton, or, amazingly, his own wife. My guess is that the net effect of the entire convention was to fire up what had been a somewhat dispirited base.

And while these conventions will quickly fade from memory once the presidential debates start, they produced a vast number of sound bites certain to be recycled as political commercials.

What was fascinating to me was the degree of attention paid to Michigan, the auto industry and the Midwest. Like a boxer working on an opponent with a sensitive midsection, the Democrats punched at GOP opposition to the bailout, time and again.

The theme, in the words of the vice president, seemed to be, “General Motors is alive and Bin Laden is dead.” John Kerry, who often seemed like a wooden statue during his own presidential campaign, got off this line: “Ask Osama Bin Laden if he is better off now than he was four years ago.”

But that line revealed a two-edged sword. Too many Americans are not better off today, though the Democrats can make a case that they saved them from being worse off still. President Obama made a very grown-up statement last night: “The truth is, it will take more than a few years for us to solve challenges that have built up over decades.”

Jimmy Carter told the voters something similar when he ran for reelection during an economic crisis. He lost all but six states. The first President Bush ended the Cold War peacefully, won the first Gulf War decisively -- and lost overwhelmingly, because of the economy.

But those Presidents lost to rivals who convinced voters they could give them something better. The Republicans haven‘t done that yet. Bush and Carter’s own parties were deeply divided, with large factions against them. President Obama doesn’t have that problem.

In the end, in Michigan as elsewhere, this election probably will come down to which candidate the voters think will leave them better off four years from now.

Jack Lessenberry is Michigan Radio’s political analyst. Views expressed in the essays by Lessenberry are his own and do not necessarily reflect those of Michigan Radio, its management or the station licensee, The University of Michigan.