Editor's note: William J. Bennett, a CNN contributor, is the author of "The Book of Man: Readings on the Path to Manhood." He was U.S. secretary of education from 1985 to 1988 and director of the Office of National Drug Control Policy under President George H.W. Bush.
(CNN) -- There are two types of conventions for a party in power, as Newt Gingrich once said: accusation conventions and achievement conventions. Accusation conventions run against their opponents' record; achievement conventions highlight their own.
In 1984 President Ronald Reagan ran an achievement convention. He rarely mentioned Jimmy Carter's record, even though it had been so poor. Instead, his campaign slogan was "Leadership that's working." He ran an uplifting campaign focused on America's turnaround and that it was "Morning in America" again.
After day one of the Democratic National Convention, it seems the Democrats are running a quite different convention.
Julian Castro, mayor of San Antonio and the keynote speaker Tuesday night, pulled no punches in blaming the economic status quo on the Bush years. "Their theory has been tested. It failed. Our economy failed. The middle class paid the price. Your family paid the price. Mitt Romney just doesn't get it," Castro said.
Former governor of Ohio, Ted Strickland, made it a little more personal, "If Mitt was Santa Claus, he would fire the reindeer and outsource the elves," Strickland said in a speech full of attacks on Mitt Romney.
Massachusetts Gov. Deval Patrick, speaking about young Americans, took it a step further. "Today's Republicans and their nominee for president tell us that those first-graders are on their own — on their own to deal with their poverty," he said. Republicans will leave them with, "an underfunded school, with neighborhood crime and blight, with no access to nutritious food and no place for their mom to cash a paycheck, with a job market that needs skills they don't have, with no way to pay for college."
First lady Michelle Obama closed the night with a moving speech, especially when she thanked and honored the military, but even she made little or no mention of President Obama's achievements. In 2008, a speech like hers would have been appropriate, but when the national debt hit $16 trillion yesterday and another anemic jobs report is expected Friday, her speech seemed out of touch and void of reality.
She said, to rousing applause, "Because for Barack, success isn't about how much money you make, it's about the difference you make in people's lives." It's hard for the American people to notice any difference in their lives when 23 million Americans are unemployed, underemployed, or have given up looking for work. Unemployment has been over 8% for 42 months, and one in six Americans lives in poverty.
Obama promised the American people great achievements. Last night his surrogates mentioned a few accomplishments they see as achievements -- Obamacare, the auto bailout, the end of "don't ask, don't tell," killing Osama bin Laden, and withdrawing the troops from Iraq and Afghanistan. But he promised to cure the "broken politics in Washington," to cut the deficit in half by the end of his first term, to not raise taxes on middle-class Americans, to protect Medicare, and to cut the cost of health care. He's broken many of these promises; on others, the verdict is still out.
With few achievements to campaign on, Democrats are sure to continue the accusation convention for the remaining two days. On Wednesday night President Bill Clinton will likely contrast his presidency and President Bush's, with few mentions of the Obama record. It could sound much like his recent ad for Obama in which he says, "The Republican plan is to cut more taxes on upper-income people and go back to deregulation. That's what got us in trouble in the first place."
Sadly, accusations work in politics, and Republicans should not take them lightly. Too few Republicans have distinguished themselves, in policy and rhetoric, from the problems of the Bush years.
The most effective way for Republicans to distance themselves from 2008 is to look to 2013. Mitt Romney and Paul Ryan should emphasize that they are not the previous Republican administration and they have the agenda and record to prove it. An accusation convention, after all, may be all the Democrats have left.
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The opinions expressed in this commentary are solely those of William Bennett.