A tale of two cities and two political conventions (with apologies to Charles Dickens): Each was the best of times, each was the worst of times; each suggested an age of wisdom, each suggested an age of foolishness; each was an epic of belief, each was an epic of incredulity.
For Americans who will vote in November's presidential election at a time when their nation seems to be one large but divided bleak house, nothing is settled after the contrasting chapters of the past two weeks, except that the battle has entered its final, most intense stage.
The Republican convention in Tampa and the Democratic convention in Charlotte answered some questions but left others for another day. Republicans got the chance to introduce their nominee, Mitt Romney, as an efficient manager with a businessman's credentials and as an honest and caring family man.
Democrats had it both harder and easier -- harder because the anemic economy is not cause for boasting, and easier because they had the last word and could criticize what Mr. Romney and his running mate, Rep. Paul Ryan, had said. They did this with panache, thanks in large part to former President Bill Clinton.
Mr. Clinton, a flawed man in his critics' eyes but still a politician of rare gifts, gave arguably his best speech since leaving office, and perhaps the best of his career. He made the challenging argument for President Obama's re-election seem easy, in turn demolishing the Republican plan for reducing the deficit and building up Mr. Obama as the man who had kept the nation from collapsing when he took office. We are better off than we were four years ago, he insisted, if you consider the disaster Mr. Obama inherited.
By the time the President gave his acceptance speech, the party already had made its case that it was moving forward and not going back to old, failed ways. Mr. Obama's speech whipped up the crowd, but was not one of his best.
Yet convention speeches do not make or break elections. Both parties still need to explain exactly what they will do to revive the economy, and how they will govern amid a bitterly divided Congress.
So far they have debated empty chairs, as Clint Eastwood did in Tampa. In the coming weeks, the nominees will debate each other. That may finally tell the tale.
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