Mitt Romney said last week that his wife would have been successful at anything she might have done. Michelle Obama on Tuesday elided her actual success as a corporate lawyer to dwell on her role as ‘mom-in-chief’. And she converted her emotional life into a talking point attuned to the day’s news cycle. The headlines were covering the parties’ contest over whether Americans were or weren’t better off than four years ago. The first lady assured the convention that she loved her husband more now than she did four years ago. Despite the disagreements over whether or not to include God and Jerusalem in the party platform, the Time Warner Cable Arena is a house full of true believers this week. I heard a corporate lawyer in her mid-thirties say that she still thought Michelle Obama was a ‘ninja killer’, whatever her omissions. She was wearing a blue dress, like many of the young women at the DNC. I didn’t see an equivalent trend last week in Tampa. But then I didn’t see many young women there. Just as there weren’t many hipsters who weren’t in the media, or delegates who weren’t white, or people who were missing a limb.
One way to look at the 2008 election was as a referendum on higher education. If you were in favour of it and what it might help you to achieve, you were for the meritocratic messiah Obama. If you didn’t need any professors telling you what to do, you were for Captain McCain and the perpetual junior college transfer student Sarah Palin. This year’s conventions have pitted the rhetoric of small business ownership, regulatory uncertainty and entitlements against that of benefits, pre-existing conditions, and severe pelvic and abdominal pain – so the way you vote should depend on whether your sympathies lean toward the owner of a signage business that lost its federal contracts, or a child whose congenital heart defect will kill her if the Affordable Care Act is repealed. But the real contest, now as then, is between the country’s managerial and professional elites, battling on poll-tested proxy terrain, where there are no businesses but small businesses, no fit dreams but to start a business, and taxes are a form of punishment that should either be cut or shifted onto someone who isn’t you.
The Democrats on Wednesday at least tempered the small business rhetoric with an autoworker, a union boss and a retired corporate CEO, Austin Ligon of CarMax, literally the greatest used car salesman in the world. He told America to extend Obama’s ‘management contract for another four years’. The victims of Bain downsizing and bankruptcy came forth to offer their testimony. Elizabeth Warren, who’s standing for the Senate in Massachusetts, said she talks to small business owners but neglected to mention that she’s a law professor (though she did tout her experience as a teenage waitress). And there was a sort of morning-after revision of Michelle Obama’s elisions in the form of Sandra Fluke, abortion rights advocate and law graduate. ‘We decide when to start our families,’ she said. There’s no end to family fun in US politics, and it was Bill Clinton, the greying father, his twang and handplay vintage 1992, a new vein alight on his right temple, who explained what’s wrong with the Republicans: like spoiled children, they don’t know how to co-operate and they don’t like to share.