Rob Lafferty

Back in early August, Ralph Nader wrote to the national committees of both the Democratic and Republican parties. In that letter he made a reasonable suggestion: Both parties should give back the $18.2 million in taxpayer money they each received to help pay for their party conventions, or donate it to charities in the cities where their conventions will be held.

That money comes into the Treasury as voluntary contributions through the $3 tax check-off box on IRS forms, and is described as going "…to the Presidential Election Campaign Fund." It doesn't say anything about funding political party conventions.

As Nader describes it, "Taxpayers who opt for this partial public funding of elections may not like funding political extravaganzas for the two parties, festooned by banners, musical entertainment, food, drink and other amenities. Pay for your own parties, your own liquor and your own entertainment."

He goes on to point out that neither convention this year is an actual exercise of democracy, because both parties have already chosen their candidate and set their platforms.

"Party rituals, the mutual admiration exchanges and the scripted, pre-cleared speeches by selected speakers are the highlights of these uncontested, predetermined, rigged shows of inaction,” Nader wrote. “Return the $36.4 million to the Treasury now or donate the money to the Tampa and Charlotte charities that are feeding the hungry, poor and homeless."

This excellent and truly bipartisan idea, one that anyone can support without violating some set of vague political principles, was completely ignored by both parties. They could certainly afford to refund that cash, as both organizations have hundreds of millions in private donations already in hand.

So what did taxpayers who checked that box get for their donation? Two three-day displays of high and low political theater along with a large dose of general foolishness is pretty much all that was offered, along with a few pretty good speeches – and one great one.

The best speech at either event was written by Massachusetts Senate candidate Elizabeth Warren, who spoke at the Democratic convention. Warren also delivered her speech well enough that people in the crowd were shown choking up and holding back tears at one point.

"After all, Mitt Romney's the guy who said corporations are people, “ Warren said. “No, Gov. Romney, corporations are not people. People have hearts, they have kids, they get jobs, they get sick, they cry, they dance. They live, they love, and they die. And that matters. That matters. That matters because we don't run this country for corporations, we run it for people.

"People feel like the system is rigged against them. And here's the painful part: they're right," she added. “And Wall Street CEOs – the same ones who wrecked our economy and destroyed millions of jobs – still strut around Congress, no shame, demanding favors, and acting like we should thank them."

That’s a very powerful statement for a modern American political candidate to make. Sadly, it’s hard to say whether Warren will benefit from being so outspoken or get hurt by it in her upcoming election.

The best speaker by far was Bill Clinton, who gave a performance worthy of his status as a master of political theater. Clinton is also a great liar, which has been publicly proven on several occasions, but he still can make a crowd believe his every word. Clinton has a gift of convincing sincerity, part schoolteacher and part preacher, and he used it well that night.

His performance was helped, of course, by the fact that he could tell the simple truth and use plain language to convey his message. He didn’t overpraise Obama and he didn’t exaggerate the positions taken by Mitt Romney or Rep. Paul Ryan at their convention the prior week. He did, however, offer a strong criticism of their positions and statements while entertaining the crowd with his folksy delivery.

President Obama was presidential, which is mostly all that people want from any president. He was inclusive in his comments, he showed conviction and he only bragged a little. He offered a general summary of where he wants to lead the nation, but he left out the boring details – such as how we can achieve those goals and manifest that vision. Those details will be important in the end, but this speech was not the time to recite them.

His best lines may have come when he asked folks to keep faith in their democracy:

“If you turn away now, if you buy into the cynicism that the change we fought for isn't possible, well, change will not happen. If you give up on the idea that your voice can make a difference, then other voices will fill the void: the lobbyists and special interests; the people with the $10 million checks who are trying to buy this election, and those who are making it harder for you to vote…”

As for Romney (and for those of you readers who care about protocol, I don’t attach the title of Governor to Romney’s name any more than I attach the title of President to Clinton’s name – because they don’t hold that office any more. Calling them “former Gov. Romney” or “former President Clinton” is accurate in a news report, but unnecessary any other time unless you want to show an abundance of respect. Few politicians deserve that level of respect…)

But enough of that. Romney’s speech was forgettable as a performance while still a good political speech. He spoke of himself and his past while assuring his supporters that they made the right choice. And that’s about all he was shooting for, it seems. He didn’t quite reach out to the uncommitted voters of America; he seemed to be trying to tap into their fear of the future instead.

I had to read a transcript to get a decent sense of what Romney was really saying, but that didn’t help much. Lots of patriotic imagery, of course. No details of any kind, but that was expected. He seemed sad and condescending when he spoke of the Obama administration’s failure to make things better quickly. By the end, the energy in the building seemed to be more acceptance than excitement.

Rep. Paul Ryan of Wisconsin gave the kind of speech one might expect from someone not yet comfortable in a national spotlight. He spoke well enough, but his speech was a combination of trips down Memory Lane, convenient omissions and outright lies. The crowd loved his act, but then it was pretty much the same crowd that bought Sarah Palin’s act four years ago. Ryan may prove to be similar in effect, providing a short-term boost after the convention but turning into a liability in the final weeks of the campaign.

All of that speechifying probably won’t have a big impact on voters, because not many were watching. The Nielsen television ratings estimate that about 30 million viewers watched Romney accept the nomination, while Ryan drew about 22 million viewers for his acceptance speech. In 2008, 39 million people watched Sen. John McCain and 37 million listened to Palin.

For Democrats, the viewership remained about the same as in 2008. For Clinton’s hour-long speech the estimate was 25 million. As I write this, the numbers aren’t in for Obama’s speech, but he did break the tweets-per-minute record for a politician, with Twitter reporting 52,756 tweets in the first minute after he finished speaking.

Now the political circuses have left town and the road shows will resume. The party faithful will show up to hear their leaders preach while undecided voters watch from afar, disappointed in the limited choice they will be asked to make. And so it goes, once again, in the 21st century version of democracy in America.

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