US Election 2012: Mitt Romney and Barack Obama – the upside-down election

The Democrats and Republicans have stolen each other’s clothes as they attempt to win over America’s voters

A quick quiz: which American political party talked about social issues, military families and foreign policy at its convention? Which American political party celebrated the achievements of its most recent president and spoke about his legacy? And which American presidential candidate declared, “I have never been more hopeful about America?” If you guessed “Republicans” to the first two and “Mitt Romney” to the third, you would be quite wrong. And that was the odd thing about this two-week American political convention season: the parties’ core messages are the same as ever, but their roles are now strangely reversed.

At the Republican convention in Tampa, Florida, Clint Eastwood famously spoke to an empty chair. Perhaps the chair could have been filled by one of the many Republican luminaries not in attendance. Former president George W Bush was nowhere to be seen. Former president George H W Bush, his father, was absent as well. Former vice-president Dick Cheney was presumably off duck hunting. Former vice-presidential candidate Sarah Palin was not in the hall and not even visible as a commentator on Fox News, the television station which now employs her.

It was almost as if eight years of Republican control of the White House did not happen, though not entirely. Condoleezza Rice did appear, she did talk about foreign policy, and she did get in a few good lines: “We cannot be reluctant to lead and you cannot lead from behind.” But other than that she stuck to generalities, and devoted a chunk of her speech to her childhood in Birmingham, Alabama. The word “Iraq” did not pass her lips.

In fact, although he was the candidate for the party that most Americans once trusted to handle relations with the outside world, Mitt Romney devoted only a single paragraph of the most important speech of his life to foreign policy. And during that paragraph, he not only failed to mention Iraq, he also failed to use the word “Afghanistan”, despite the fact that nearly 70,000 American troops are still posted there and still will be if he becomes president. Nor did he devote any of his speech to “our men and women in uniform”, as American candidates usually do. As for the Republican vice-presidential candidate, Paul Ryan, he did not mention any foreign countries or any foreign policy or military issues at all.

There were other words missing, too. Key Republican phrases such as “right to life” and “family values” were scarcely heard, at least not during prime time, even though they were so important during the Republican primary a few short months ago. Strangest of all, there wasn’t much optimism on display in Tampa either. Though Romney often speaks of his admiration for Ronald Reagan, there was no Reaganite “Morning in America” rhetoric, no talk of the US as a shining city on a hill. Instead, the Republican candidate sketched a grim picture of the US economy and its prospects. “Americans,” he declared, “now doubt our children will have a better future.”

By contrast, the Democrats – historically the party with less interest and less talent for foreign matters – gave speech after speech at their convention in Charlotte, North Carolina, about foreign policy. Joe Biden and John Kerry talked at length about the outside world. Michelle Obama and Jill Biden talked about their work with military families. When the president finally got up to speak, he actually boasted about his achievements. “Four years ago,” President Obama declared, “I promised to end the war in Iraq. We did. I promised to refocus on the terrorists who actually attacked us on 9/11. We have. We’ve blunted the Taliban’s momentum in Afghanistan, and in 2014, our longest war will be over. A new tower rises above the New York skyline, al-Qaeda is on the path to defeat, and Osama bin Laden is dead.”

Far from avoiding all social issues, neither the president nor anyone else in Charlotte was especially secretive about the Democrats’ policies on legal abortion or homosexuality. In his speech, Obama clearly alluded to his more lenient policy on homosexuals in the armed forces, declaring that “selfless soldiers won’t be kicked out of the military because of who they are or who they love”. He was echoing comments made by his wife, Michelle, a few days earlier, who also declared that her husband wanted everyone in America to have equal opportunities, “no matter who we are… or who we love”. Michelle did steal some traditionally Republican family values rhetoric, speaking of her role as “Mom-in-Chief”. But at the same time she declared that “women are more than capable of making our own choices about our bodies and our health care… that’s what my husband stands for”.

Finally, the Democrats not only brought their most recent ex-president to Charlotte, they put him centre stage on Wednesday night and asked him to formally nominate President Obama, giving him a role usually reserved for the vice-president. Bill Clinton, looking older and skinnier than we remember, also bragged about his record. He dwelled on the “roaring” economy of 1996, a prelude to the “longest peacetime expansion in the history of the United States”, most of which he’d had the good luck to preside over. Optimism and American exceptionalism – of the kind we used to hear from Republicans – overflowed from the podium, during his speech and that of many others.

Indeed, now that both conventions have ended, it’s become clear that we are watching a double gamble: both major American political parties have decided to re-invent themselves, at least for the purposes of this US election. Clearly, the Republicans now reckon that the more socially conservative planks of their platform are not popular among the mob of swing voters who invariably determine the outcome of US presidential elections. Neither are their recent presidents, or their recent foreign policy.

As a result, Romney has become a single-issue candidate. He has one argument in his favour, though admittedly it is a very simple and thus very powerful one: the economy isn’t what it should be, the recovery is anaemic and Romney, with his business record and his executive experience, will be better able to fix it. When he or his supporters ask, as Ryan did a few days ago, “Are you better off now than you were in 2008”, they are gambling that the majority of Americans will answer “no” – and that they will therefore decide that they want a new president.

But the Democrats have also taken a gamble. They are betting that the majority of Americans, when asked “Are you better off now than you were four years ago” will either answer “yes” or at the very least “no… but I like enough other things about this president to vote for him again, and anyway the next term might go better”. In other words, the Democrats are asking swing voters to accept their socially liberal policies, to embrace their famously controversial past president, to approve of and admire their foreign policy record and, in addition to all of that, to believe that the economy will do better in the next four years, even with the same president in charge.

That’s a more complicated argument, but it’s also broader and deeper, designed to appeal to people who think about other things besides economics, if there still are any. It’s also the closest thing to optimism currently on offer – if, in this grim and unusual election season, Americans still want to hear that things can only get better.

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