American presidential politics always pit a Republican against a Democrat, but rarely do we see true polar opposites come together to compete as we have in 2012. In my lifetime, the last presidential election I can recall that included distinctly different candidates was the Carter / Reagan election of 1980. In so many interesting ways, this election feels oddly similar to those times.
In recent days, Governor Romney and President Obama gave commencement speeches at two different colleges. The speech given by Governor Romney was truly inspiring and one of the best he has ever given. If you have not seen it, you really need to (it really is worth the time). To watch it in its entirety, click here.
Daniel Henninger’s weekly column in The Wall Street Journal yesterday was titled, “A Tale of Two Commencements” — (For Obama, politics is life. For Romney, politics does not define us.)
Henninger perfectly contrasts Obama’s frequent victims message with Romney’s message of optimism, rooted in selfless service.
Two days after Mitt Romney delivered the commencement speech at Liberty University, the big evangelical Christian school founded by Jerry Falwell, Barack Obama tutored graduates at Barnard College, the intensely liberal all-women’s school adjacent to Columbia University. As you might guess, the wisdom these two political elders imparted to the Class of 2012 was not the same.
Barack Obama, by now a master at faux self-deflation, admitted he was pandering: “Now I recognize that’s a cheap applause line when you’re giving a commencement at Barnard.” (Laughter.) He had said the women of this generation will help lead the way. (Applause.)
The world that Barack Obama conveyed to the women at Barnard is totally, overwhelmingly political. To be sure, there were references to parental joy at the success of children completing college, but virtually every thought in the Obama commencement address—on the accomplishments of the past or a graduate’s goals—was defined by political activity.
He said they are about to grapple with unique challenges, “like whether you’ll be able to earn equal pay for equal work” or “fully control decisions about your own health.”
The role of the citizen in “our democracy” began 225 years ago at the Convention in Philadelphia, which had “flaws,” to wit: “Questions of race and gender were unresolved.” Nonetheless, it “allowed for protest and movements.”
And so: “Don’t accept somebody else’s construction of the way things ought to be. It’s up to you to right wrongs. It’s up to you to point out injustice. It’s up to you to hold the system accountable and sometimes upend it entirely. It’s up to you to stand up and to be heard, to write and to lobby, to march, to organize, to vote.”
Mr. Obama described his own early job as a community organizer: “I wanted to do my part to shape a better world.” He cited the accomplishments of previous generations of young people who “stood up and sat in from Seneca Falls to Selma to Stonewall.” This, Mr. Obama said, is how “we achieved” women’s rights, voting rights, workers’ rights and gay rights.
Barack Obama seems to inhabit a world of history and personal experience in which good people at every turn are held back by individuals or oppressive forces that one only overcomes by personal or public resistance.
Someone in high school told Labor Secretary Hilda Solis she wasn’t college material. Mr. Obama’s grandmother worked for a bank but hit the glass ceiling. And today there are “those who oppose change, those who benefit from an unjust status quo [and] have always bet on the public’s cynicism or the public’s complacency.” He predicts they will lose “this time as well.”
Fair enough. That’s how the world works for Barack Obama, though it strikes me he is telling America’s 22-year-olds that the road ahead is a fairly grim proletarian struggle. Be ready to occupy everything. Where’s the joy in that?
There was less tooth and claw in the Romney speech at Liberty University. In a discussion of the uses of religious freedom, one passage in particular separated Mr. Romney from Barack Obama’s default to mass action. “The great drama of Christianity,” Gov. Romney said, “is not a crowd shot, following the movements of collectives or even nations. The drama is always personal, individual, unfolding in one’s own life.” Out of this, he said, “Men and women of every faith, and good people with none at all, sincerely strive to do right and lead a purpose-driven life.”
Progress, he argued, emerges through “conscience in action,” for him “the nation’s greatest force for good.” Mr. Romney referred several times to the idea of personal service. “The call to service,” he said “is one of the fundamental elements of our national character. It has motivated every great movement of conscience that this hopeful, fair-minded country of ours has ever seen.”
For Barack Obama, life is politics. For Mitt Romney, life includes politics; politics, he said, does not define us.
To wage a presidential campaign in our nonstop media age, the man who sees politics as a battering ram may have an edge. But Mitt Romney, with his politics of optimism and personal conscience, could be onto something that will serve him well.
“Today, thanks to what you have gained here, you leave Liberty with conviction and confidence as your armor. You know what you believe. You know who you are. And you know Whom you will serve. Not all colleges instill that kind of confidence, but it will be among the most prized qualities from your education here. Moral certainty, clear standards, and a commitment to spiritual ideals will set you apart in a world that searches for meaning.” ~ Mitt Romney, Liberty University, May 12, 2012