Convention Wrap: Hopeless

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Two weeks of partisan pageantry leave voters with little reason to believe either candidate has a better future to offer.

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CHARLOTTE -- The problem with President Obama's dud of a convention speech isn't that it deflated his supporters (it didn't), or that it made Bill Clinton look good (it did). The problem is that it stepped on the message. And for that reason, Democrats may come out of their convention no better than Republicans came out of theirs.

The Democratic convention was carefully orchestrated into a three-part arc based on the central theme of each night. On the first night, Michelle Obama told us who the president is; on the second, Bill Clinton defended and explained what he has already done. Obama's task on the final night was to articulate a forward-looking vision for the future.

But he couldn't pull it off. He promised a speech heavy on policy specifics, but what he delivered was largely the same positions he's been peddling for the last four years (investing in education! renewable energy!), with little emphasis on how he would address the nation's persistent unemployment. Combined with Friday morning's disappointing jobs report, that left the messaging effort without its essential capstone. Convention-watchers may have been left feeling that they like the president and think he's tried to do the right thing, but he just doesn't have a firm handle on the way forward. With each new sign that the economy is treading water or worse, the Democrats' plea for patience gets harder to take. The idea that things are turning around and all we have to do is cross our fingers and wait gets less and less credible.

Republicans, coming out of their convention in Tampa, had the same problem. They were so laser-focused on getting people to like Mitt Romney that they, too, left a muddle where the message should be. Romney's speech in particular gave little indication of what he would do and how it would work, on jobs or anything else; he was also conspicuously skimpy on foreign policy, an inadequacy Obama and other Democrats highlighted to their advantage.

Romney didn't get a boost from his convention; we'll see, in the next few days, if Obama gains anything from his. If not, it may be because two weeks of partisan pageantry confirmed voters' worst suspicion: that neither candidate really knows how to get us out of the mess we're in.

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Molly Ball is a staff writer covering national politics at The Atlantic.

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