CHARLOTTE, N.C. -- Republicans last week in Tampa and Democrats this week in Charlotte were not faking it. Partisans on both sides really do regard the other party's nominee with contempt, and both sides look at the other's agenda with genuine incomprehension.
Now that the Democratic and Republican conventions are over, however, the most striking conclusion is how a collision of values produced a convergence of political strategies.
Both sides aggressively framed their conventions around the same question: Which side are you on?
The Republican way of putting it: Are you with us, or those people who disdain free enterprise, resent individual success and yearn for a European-style welfare state?
The Democratic way of putting it: Are you with us, or with those people who all look alike, want to control your sexual and reproductive freedom and don't care about opportunities for anyone who isn't already as successful as they are?
That both parties chose the most argumentative way of framing the case reflects a raucously argumentative age.
It also demands that each party also answer a question: Why would you choose a style of angry, line-drawing politics that is exactly the opposite of the line-blurring style that has made Bill Clinton the politician with the highest approval ratings in the land?
Amid the latest redundant evidence of the radicalization of politics, here are six conclusions in the wake of Charlotte and Tampa:
The election matters
There is one view that holds that 2012 has been so dominated by tactical trench warfare and an endless succession of uproars du jour that there is hardly any substance behind the noise.
Both conventions underscored how deep -- and how relevant to pending decisions of governance -- the philosophical divide is.
Democratic rhetoric is openly protective of big government in a way it was not during the Clinton years. Republican rhetoric is dismissive of any positive role for government that makes the "compassionate conservative" ideas of George W. Bush seem like a very distant echo.
The Republican instinct to reward individuals for risk-taking, and the Democratic instinct to emphasize collective responsibility, will play out in the near-term over Medicare. If Mitt Romney and the Republicans win, it's clear they genuinely would seek to inject substantial private-sector competition into the Medicare program -- a fundamental change. President Barack Obama genuinely does view such an experiment as a violation of the social contract.
Race and the culture wars are back on center stage
There wasn't a single day at either convention that didn't see accusations of racial insensitivity or outright racism fly. It started with MSNBC's Chris Matthews and Democrats accusing Romney of playing to racial fears with his welfare reform ad, escalated with Arizona Gov. Jan Brewer charging that Obama routinely plays to racial fears over immigration and culminated with two Democratic senators hitting Republicans for being a party of out-of-touch whites. Get used to it: American politics is split along racial fault lines, with most whites voting Republican and two-thirds of Hispanics and almost three-thirds of blacks backing Democrats.
With political bases like that, neither side can resist the temptation to use racial politics to stoke turnout. If that feels different than 2008 -- when Obama prospered with a celebratory vision of a post-racial nation -- it is. And it surely won't end when the conventions are over.
It's not just race. Viewers tuning into the Charlotte convention this week saw the Democratic Party play offense on abortion rights, giving prominent speaking roles to NARAL Pro-Choice America's Nancy Keenan, Planned Parenthood's Cecile Richards and activist Sandra Fluke on behalf of a woman's unfettered right to choose.
This, too, is different from the way Clinton talked about these issues, traditionally backing abortion rights or gay rights by framing these in a low-key, soft-edged way to avoid inflaming people on the other side of these divisive issues.
It is not clear that the overall politics of the issue has changed. Gallup and Pew found support for abortion rights decreasing a bit in recent surveys, with the public still deeply divided. But Democrats clearly made a decision that in an election with few undecided voters, the issue could be useful in mobilizing culturally liberal women.
Republicans have a terrible demographic problem
Every political journalist has written about the GOP's long-term problem attracting younger voters and Hispanics. But the side-by-side conventions underscored this reality in dramatic fashion. Diversity in Tampa was highlighted on the podium, but the whiteness of the party, and its seeming economic and cultural homogeneity, was obvious on the convention floor and the social events around the convention.
Clint Eastwood's bizarre Grandpa Simpson moment in Tampa, meanwhile, threatens to echo damagingly in the same way Pat Buchanan's summons to a culture war did in Houston in 1992. Prominent Democrats in Charlotte couldn't stop mentioning Eastwood's performance. Sen. Tom Harkin (D-Iowa), who is 72, said Eastwood was an "an old, angry white man spewing incoherent nonsense."
Down with empathy
Average Americans, get over it: Neither nominee is very much like you. Both are a lot richer, more physically fit and have moved for many years in a world of financial, political and intellectual elites far removed from the daily hassles and setbacks of "ordinary people."
That doesn't mean they can't "understand the problems of people like you," as pollsters put it.
But the effort to establish lifestyle connections with coveted voting blocs, in particular middle-class women, were never more obvious and stagy. "I love you, women!" said Ann Romney, who also described the tuna fish with pasta she and Mitt Romney ate to save money 40 years ago. Michelle Obama said she is the "mom in chief."
These heavy-handed lines flowed from a condescending premise: that people care more about sentimental touchstones than the governmental choices at stake in the election. Notably, perhaps the most effective speech of either convention, Bill Clinton's, put the emphasis entirely on policy.
Don't overstate the importance of the conventions
In past generations, nominees could reliably count on a polling "bounce" after their conventions. Romney barely got one, and it's quite possible Obama won't either. This race has been largely static for months -- with neither nominee generating intense enthusiasm among an electorate anxious about the direction of the country -- and there's no reason to suppose the conventions will cause the contest to break open.
In any event, convention bounces may be an anachronism in an era of accelerated news cycles and media saturation.
Conventions are increasingly about parties talking to people whose minds are made up. On the Tuesdays of the conventions, nearly 7 million watched Republicans on Fox for the Republican convention and 2.5 million watched the Democratic convention on Fox. Over at MSNBC, only 1.5 million watched the GOP on opening night, compared with 4 million for the Democrats.
Republicans come out of convention season behind
Romney political operatives acknowledge this privately. For the past two months, they have insisted that by now, Romney would have to put away at least one swing state -- they thought it might be Florida -- and that he would get a big convention bounce, bigger than thought. They now concede they are not close to putting away any swing state -- in fact, they privately concede things are way worse in Ohio than originally hoped -- and that they will get no convention bounce, at least not one that bounces up. This means the election will come down to the debates -- and a test of whether money can truly tip elections in such a clogged media environment.
This reality helped drive a prevailing background conversation in Tampa. Many GOP activists heard vice presidential nominee Paul Ryan and Marco Rubio, who introduced Romney, both in their early 40s, and wished the party had decided to make a generational shift this time instead of embracing the 65-year-old Romney as nominee.
Correction: An earlier version of this story misstated Marco Rubio's role at the Republican National Convention. He introduced Mitt Romney.
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