What surprise could President Barack Obama have in store for Charlotte? This question is important because not only will this convention proclaim his renomination, but it will shape a theme for four more years.
Obama could of course go the route preferred by Richard Nixon in 1972, which was to orchestrate a dazzling show and stress his own candidacy while ignoring his party's fortunes. Or Obama could spring a surprise, perhaps on the vice presidential front and also shape the party's message in league with his own.
For Obama, the model should be Franklin Roosevelt's in 1936, and not Nixon's in 1972. Like Obama, FDR was stuck with an improving, but still lackluster economy. The index of industrial production was 121, still below the 125 recorded in 1929. Much of the early New Deal had been cautious, earning the enmity of the left and the scorn of the right. Southern barons controlled key committees and FDR faced long odds if he tried to change the still "horse and buggy" character of the Democratic party.
But in Philadelphia, Roosevelt took chances, invited an African-American clergyman to give an invocation, much to the consternation of Southern leaders, and ended the two-thirds requirement for nomination. This too struck at Southern sensibilities and power. As well, he struck out at conservative opponents, the American Liberty League, and "welcomed their hatred." In that week in 1936, FDR changed the Democratic Party, placing it on a more progressive path.
Obama needs to use the opportunity to sharpen his message and that of the party. Paul Ryan's pick allows him to do so. The last position he needs to take is the allegedly longed- for middle position. No doubt his advisors would love for him to embrace Simpson-Bowles, which would give him a message of less austerity, but austerity nevertheless. He needs to follow the Ronald Reagan preference for "bright colors" instead of "pastels."
Many years have passed since the Democratic Party has taken a bold route. Defense has marked its approach rather than a message that would openly state what the party is for in the future, not just what they have done in the past. No amount of toadying will ever bring back either soft Obama voters from 2008 nor win the conservative-leaning blue dogs. Obama needs to convince independents and even some progressive-leaning McCain voters to endorse not only his candidacy, but his ideas.
Central to this is to remind voters that the Democratic Party is the party of government. It's not the mixed regime which as Roosevelt would put it, is "frozen in the ice of its own indifference." The balkanized elements of the party need to be unified behind a social agenda that is brought about only by a party victory, not simply by a personal victory by the president. Indeed, Obama needs to point out that the mess was created largely because of GOP policies since the 1980s.
Naturally such appeals are fraught with risk. If the public does not want it, the Democrats could be thrashed. But if they do buy it, the ground could be prepared for a successful second term. The Romney-Ryan team has offered a stark alternative that needs to be matched by an equally vigorous challenge.
Otherwise it could be a death by a thousand cuts. Bill Clinton tried to triangulate conservative and liberal positions, and for his trouble was impeached. Lyndon Johnson tried to merge a pro-business and pro-government "consensus" which would lead to a great society. But even LBJ's program lacked overarching themes. Better to shake things up as in 1936, when FDR threw the gauntlet down at his opponent's feet. Being a gentleman has not worked for Obama, perhaps emulating Roosevelt's fighting spirit might.