The message of the Democrats' big show at Charlotte has been a mirror image of the Republicans' in Tampa. Everything the nation was told at Tampa about the ever fluid State of the Union and what to do about it was turned upside-down and inside-out at Charlotte.
Think of it a two-act play. The second act just reverses the plot of the first. As the audience files out, it's left to take its choice of alternate universes and alternative approaches to it.
This is called the two-party system, and except for a late unpleasantness or two, notably 1861-65, it has remained remarkably the same since the two parties were called Federalists and Republicans at the beginning of the Republic. The names have changed, and, boy, circumstances have, but not the attitudes -- conservative, liberal and all over the ballpark. Hey, what a country: The more things stay the same, the more they change. But it's a great show if you can stand it. Kind of like life.
To sum up the story out of Charlotte so far:
Monday, the delegates milled around. They were offered warm-up acts like Wesley Clark's. It was only appropriate that the star of a reality show should be introducing this quadrennial one.
Tuesday, the keynoter keynoted. Nothing much new there. Chris Christie, Julian Castro, you pays your money and you takes your poor choice. But then Michelle Obama took the rostrum and the country's heart, and this show got on the road. Expectations were raised, met and exceeded.
. . .
Wednesday, center stage belonged to the Big Guy, the Comeback Kid, the party's Super Salesman, The Closer. Yes, the boy president who's now the boy elder statesman and enjoying every minute of it. He was going to talk about Barack Obama. And so Bill Clinton did when he wasn't absorbed in his favorite subject, namely Bill Clinton:
"I want . . . I want . . . I want . . . Through my foundation . . . I'm so proud . . . I'm also grateful . . . I hate . . . I like . . . I understand . . . I experienced . . . I believe . . . I think . . . I love. . . ."
And so on for 50 minutes by the clock and an eternity in television time -- unless you're as fascinated by Bill Clinton as Bill Clinton is. The crowd in the arena definitely was. Happy Days were here again, or soon would be. The crowd hung on his every word. Even as across the country the lights were going out and folks were wondering when he would get to the most blessed words in any speech of Bill Clinton's: "And in conclusion. . . ."
The words never came but he did finally conclude, or at least run out. All agreed he'd done what he'd needed to do: turn those Republicans every way but loose. And explain that prosperity was just around the corner, to borrow a phrase from Herbert Hoover. His self-absorption didn't prevent Bill Clinton from inundating his audience with facts-'n'-figures and general fun with numbers. He would need all that wonktalk to make the two basic numbers for this administration go away: An unemployment rate still above 8 percent after almost four years in office, and a national debt that topped $16 trillion just as this convention was getting under way.
For a time, listening to Bill Clinton with an open if not empty mind, with the kind of willing suspension of disbelief that any poetic flight requires of its listeners, with a concentrated effort and a mighty pull, folks might forget those two basic, looming unforgettable numbers. Almost. But even when they do, the queasy feeling those big, bad numbers generate won't go away. It's a feeling of dissatisfaction, of general unease. In the gut.
The suspicion that the country has been headed in the wrong direction has been hardening into a conviction. And it's hard to talk people out of what they feel. Bill Clinton is enough of a politician, more than enough, to recognize that feeling, and respond to it. The nub of his response:
"President Obama started with a much weaker economy than I did. No President -- not me or any of my predecessors -- could have repaired all the damage in just four years. But conditions are improving, and if you'll renew the President's contract you will feel it."
Bill Clinton's knowledge of history is as reliable as ever, that is, not very. The historian, or at least the good one, knows better than to make sweeping generalizations that sweep the exceptions under the nearest rug. "(N)ot me or any of my predecessors could have repaired all the damage in just four years."
The biggest bulge under that rhetorical rug is the remarkable, the historic, turnaround in the American economy that came to be known as the Reagan Recovery -- for within four years it had repaired the damage of the Carter Years, which was one heck of a lot.
How did the Gipper do it? By following policies that in retrospect sound remarkably like the ones a current presidential candidate is now advocating, and his name isn't Barack Obama.
. . .
How sum up the course Ronald Reagan and his merry band of supply-siders chose at a time when their ideas, too, were being ridiculed as unworkable? "An amiable dunce," Clark Clifford called Ronald Reagan at the onset of his presidency, and Clark Clifford was supposed to know. He was the Wise Old Man of the Democratic Party at the time and had been for years. Today that honorary post is held by Bill Clinton, who says of Mitt Romney's ideas: "The numbers don't add up."
One of the Wise Old Men in Washington who really is a wise old man is George Shultz, the former secretary of labor, director of the Office of Management and Budget, secretary of the Treasury, secretary of state and former just about everything else in the Reagan administration. Here's how he explains the Reagan Recovery, 1981-84:
"When Ronald Reagan took office, inflation was in the teens, the prime rate was in the 20s, and the economy was going nowhere. We still had the remnants of wage and price controls, particularly in oil and gas. And Jimmy Carter said we were in malaise. It was a bad time. I'm convinced the economy can be turned around because I watched Ronald Reagan do it. . . . It took long-term thinking. I'll give you an example. (Reagan) knew and we all advised him you can't have a decent economy with the kind of inflation we've got. . . . And he held a political umbrella over (Federal Reserve Chairman) Paul Volcker, and Paul did what needed to be done. And by late '82 early '83, inflation was under control, the tax changes that he made were kicking in, and the economy took off." And it was morning in America again.
Can it be again? Or is this the best we can do? The best that America can do? That's the essential question being debated in this year's presidential election. Shall we hold to this course and hope for the best? Or strike out anew? With a new captain and a new crew and new hope. We the People will supply the answer November 6, 2012.
(Paul Greenberg is the Pulitzer prize-winning editorial page editor of the Arkansas Democrat-Gazette. His e-mail address is firstname.lastname@example.org.)