Political conventions get deeply personal

September 6, 2012

This year, the political conventions got personal. Extremely so.

From heart-rending tales of premature babies to tactfully described female disorders, the organizers of the Republican and Democratic conventions have featured deeply personal stories of health struggles that in previous years might have been more at home on “The Oprah Winfrey Show” than at the podium of a national political event.

There’s no mystery as to why. For months, the presidential race has been fought at 30,000 feet, with the candidates spouting off on esoteric ideas about the role of government and who has better ideas about health care and the economy. Voters have had little opportunity to connect with those ideas — or the men espousing them — on a personal level.

That changed last week when Republicans gathered in Tampa to formally choose Mitt Romney as their nominee and to introduce him to a voting public that has been slow to warm to him personally. The trend continued this week, as Democrats assembled in Charlotte try to solidify their advantage with female voters and cast as positively as possible President Obama’s signature health-care law.

“It humanizes and personalizes the politics, that it’s not just about policy it’s also about people,” said Frank Luntz, a Republican media consultant. “Whenever policy is put in people terms, that’s when it succeeds.”

During the final day of the Republican National Convention, the speaker list consisted of a series of friends and supporters who had been touched by Romney’s work as a lay leader in his church — work that often included offering comfort to the sick and dying.

Former Boston resident Pam Finlayson told how Romney came to her bedside when her daughter, Kate, was born more than three months early. “Her lungs not yet ready to breathe, her heart unstable, and after suffering a severe brain hemorrhage at three days old, she was teetering on the very edge of life,” she said. Romney grew misty-eyed as he stroked the baby’s back, Finlayson recalled.

Ted and Pat Oparowski of Vermont told a similar story about their son, David, who died of cancer at age 14. For seven months, Romney visited the boy, befriending him and eventually helping him draft a will.

“You cannot measure a man’s character based on the words he utters before adoring crowds during times that are happy,” Ted Oparowski told the crowd. “The quiet hospital room of a dying boy, with no cameras and no reporters — this is the time to make that assessment.”

The stories were aimed at humanizing Romney, who has struggled to personally connect with voters.

But the testimonials had a different purpose this week in Charlotte, where Democrats assembled to formally re-nominate Obama, and to take advantage of an engaged prime-time audience to push their talking points about women and the health-care law.

Among those who took the podium was Phoenix resident Stacey Lihn, who credited the health law with saving the life of her daughter, who she said was born with a congenital heart defect and would have maxed out her health-care benefits if not for the provision that lifts lifetime caps on benefits.

She was followed by Elizabeth Ann “Libby” Bruce, a resident of Columbus, Ohio, who delicately discussed her battle with endometriosis, a disorder that can lead to infertility. She described the “severe pelvic and abdominal pain” that led her to a Planned Parenthood clinic 12 years ago — a decision that she says ensured she would be able to give birth to her daughter, who was born this summer.

On the Republican side, former senator Rick Santorum of Pennsylvania discussed his daughter Bella, whose story made frequent appearances on the campaign trail this year when he ran unsuccessfully for president. Bella suffers from a disorder that leads many parents to abort their fetuses. But Santorum has turned the family’s decision to carry Bella to term into a symbol of his commitment to antiabortion causes.

Some critics objected to the more graphic testimonials.

“Whatever happened to decorum and humility and privacy? Life doesn’t have to be one big reality show with everybody participating,” said Kellyanne Conway, a Republican pollster who specializes in women voters.

But to others, the speeches were just par for the course in an election that has veered into controversial territory when it comes to women’s bodies, particularly on issues of rape and abortion.

Democrats have seized on comments by Rep. Todd Akin (R), an antiabortion candidate for Senate in Missouri, who incorrectly asserted that pregnancy from rape is rare because women’s bodies have ways to prevent it. And they have revived a controversy from last year, when Rep. Paul Ryan, Romney’s running mate, co-sponsored a bill that would have permanently banned federal funding for abortions with an exception for cases of “forcible rape.” Critics accused the bill’s authors of trying to narrow the broadly accepted definition of rape.

“When you talk about an election where forcible rape is part of the conversation, it’s hard for me to imagine that a woman focusing on her uterus is any worse than that,” said Anna Greenberg, a Democratic pollster. “This election has gone well beyond that point.”

Sandhya Somashekhar is a health reporter for the Washington Post.
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