CHARLOTTE, N.C.—A few quiet morning-after moments at the airport have prompted me to ponder a question that rarely pops up in the hyperactive frenzy of political analysis at conventions: What do we know about Barack Obama and Mitt Romney that we didn’t know 10 days ago?
The honest answer is not much. Yes, it is impressive that both candidates married women who have learned how to give powerful and emotionally resonant political speeches. The testimonials from the men and women whom Romney helped as a lay leader of the Mormon church linger in memory. Bill Clinton, in the greatest speech ever delivered by an ex-president at a political convention, advanced a new argument that Romney’s proposed cuts in Medicaid funding would cripple middle-class families who depend on the program for nursing-home coverage for their relatives. And as Obama and Joe Biden kept repeating Thursday night in a burst of rhetorical overkill, Osama bin Laden is dead.
Correction: We already knew that bin Laden had been killed by Navy SEALs, even though Obama radiated the impression that he wants to commemorate the moment on the Great Seal of the United States.
Nomination acceptance speeches remain the best moment in the campaign season to mount a sustained argument that will be heard by millions of wavering voters. But it is telling that both Romney and Obama chose not to go in that artistic direction. Neither candidate even offered the specificity of George H.W. Bush’s hollow promise at the 1988 New Orleans Republican convention: “Read my lips: No new taxes.”
Despite the low-brow tastes of convention planners in both parties, TV viewers can handle sophisticated political argument and substance. Recall the reaction to Condoleezza Rice in Tampa, Fla., as well as to Clinton on Wednesday night. But because of their natures and their no-risk political strategies, both Romney and Obama declined an opportunity to (in Adlai Stevenson’s words) “talk sense to the American people.”
Actually, to be fair, the conventions did provide important insight into the candidates. What we received was a crash course in the innate caution of Obama and Romney. Reluctant to veer off script, both nominees cleaved to predictable paths as they created conventions in their own image. In Tampa and Charlotte, the only surprises revolved around the weather.
OK, Clint Eastwood in Tampa was the exception that proves the rule. But his bizarre and tasteless performance (two suggestions that the president of the United States should perform an unnatural act) offered a window into the 65-year-old Romney’s idea of contemporary show-business icons. Romney let Eastwood do his empty-headed, empty-chair shuffle in convention prime time because Cary Grant wasn’t available.
It might be tempting to dust off the cliché about the "Seinfeld" show—and call this an election about nothing. (Confession: I used that line to describe a prior election, but the campaign was so forgettable that I forgot which one it was.)
Except that, in reality, the stakes are high in this election, as countless speakers thundered in Tampa and Charlotte. That may be a tired trope. (I suspect that the 1924 campaign between Calvin Coolidge and a lawyer named John W. Davis nominated by the Democrats on the 103rd ballot in Madison Square Garden was described in equally apocalyptic terms.) But this year, the claims of a fateful choice are not hyperbole. The nation’s decision in November will dictate the future of Obamacare, tax rates, long-term federal spending and probably the future direction of the Supreme Court.
But these are topics that both Romney and Obama refuse to address with anything beyond partisan boilerplate. The president spoke Thursday night about “hard choices,” but he has lost the passion to talk about big ideas. Romney, for his part, seems determined to run his campaign based on a single pledge: “I am not now, nor have I ever been, Barack Obama.”
The American people deserve better, but it is unlikely they are going to get it from 30-second attack ads and three-minute debate responses. To put a contemporary twist on the immortal line from “Sunset Boulevard” uttered by Gloria Swanson: “The problems are big, it’s the candidates that got small."