Subscribe for 33¢ / day

CHARLOTTE — The most overused and least understood word at the Republican National Convention in Tampa was “reform.”

Historically, a reformer was someone who demanded that action be taken to address the inequity, corruption and neglect of the common good that rendered a potentially commendable system dysfunctional.

True reformers — like Republican Teddy Roosevelt and Democrat Franklin Roosevelt — were believers in the American experiment. But they knew that it was an experiment; to function properly it needed to adjust with the times and to improve so that a broken status quo did not become the norm.

At the Republican convention, which nominated two sons of privilege to lead what has become the party of economic royalism, Mitt Romney and Paul Ryan redefined “reform.” They made it the term not for addressing dysfunction but for extending it.

At a time when the gap between the rich and the poor has become a chasm, Romney and Ryan propose to create a Bain capitalist future of leveraged buyouts, shuttered factories and off-shored assets. Their “reforms” make a mockery of the Jeffersonian vision of a nation of small shopkeepers and small farmers; yes, Americans could still scrape livings out of small shops and small farms, they could “build it,” but they could not shape the government policies that might actually allow them to play a role in discerning the future course of the republic.

The Republican platform, embraced in Tampa not just by wild-eyed social-conservative foes of reproductive rights and marriage equality but by Romney and Ryan when they accepted their nominations, outlines a plan for the redistribution of economic power upward — with page after page of proposals for tax and trade policies that benefit the top 1/10th of the top 1 percent. But it also redistributes political power upward, declaring that the “right” of billionaires to buy election results is every bit as sacrosanct as the right to vote or to speak freely in the public square.

Opposing any limits on the political practices of the Koch brothers and Sheldon Adelson, the platform pledges to “support repeal of the remaining sections of McCain-Feingold, support either raising or repealing contribution limits, and oppose passage of the DISCLOSE Act or any similar legislation designed to vitiate the Supreme Court’s recent decisions protecting political speech in Wisconsin Right to Life v. Federal Election Commission and Citizens United v. Federal Election Commission.”

In other words: As far as the GOP is concerned, while there is NOT ENOUGH money in politics there is TOO MUCH transparency.

This is a far cry from the days when Robert M. La Follette, a Republican governor, senator and reformer of a century ago, declared: “The greatest danger menacing public institutions today is the overbalancing control of city, state, and national legislatures by the wealth and power of corporations.”

La Follette fretted that “the tendency to monopolization of political control by a few men (threatened) to disfranchise the great majority of citizens.” Now his party has nominated two of the “few men” for president and vice president.

So is the reform cause dead?

Not necessarily.

America has a two-party system. That is an insufficient range of political opportunity, but it can at times offer a “last best hope” prospect — if Democrats are willing to seize it.

When it comes to reform, the Democratic Party that convened in Charlotte this week has historically been at odds with itself. And it is now. The party of labor is meeting in a city that has erected barriers to union organizing. The party of FDR — who campaigned against the “old enemies … of business and financial monopoly, speculation, reckless banking, class antagonism” that “consider the government of the United States as a mere appendage to their own affairs” — is holding its 45th convention at a stadium named for a multinational banking and financial-services corporation that is now the second-largest bank holding company in the United States. And the party of campaign finance reform will decry “big money” at a convention funded in large part by “big money.”

It is easy to be cynical.

But last week President Obama took the extraordinary step — in an online interview — of identifying himself with what is arguably the most important reform message of the moment.

As Madison as it gets: Get Cap Times' highlights sent daily to your inbox

Asked about the corrupt influence of money in politics, especially since the Supreme Court’s Citizens United ruling struck down limits on corporate spending to buy elections, Obama wrote: “We need to start with passing the DISCLOSE Act that is already written and been sponsored in Congress — to at least force disclosure of who is giving to who. We should also pass legislation prohibiting the bundling of campaign contributions from lobbyists. Over the longer term, I think we need to seriously consider mobilizing a constitutional amendment process to overturn Citizens United (assuming the Supreme Court doesn’t revisit it). Even if the amendment process falls short, it can shine a spotlight on the super PAC phenomenon and help apply pressure for change.”

The president’s movement toward an embrace of the campaign to amend the Constitution in order to overturn Citizens United is a big deal.

It positions him as the real reformer in the 2012 race.

But Obama has to do more than just tap out a few words online. The president needs to incorporate the message into his acceptance speech in Charlotte, and to take the message on the road this fall.

Obama can do more than just run against Romney. He can, and should, run against a corrupt system. He can acknowledge the simplest yet most profound political truth of this time: Our system is not perfect. It needs reform. But it needs the right reform — reform that extends the promise of democracy, that recognizes the need not only for legal justice but for economic justice that gives real power to the people.

Mitt Romney and the Republicans cannot deliver that reform; they are not even trying.

It falls to Barack Obama and the Democrats to take up the reform mantle and march it toward November. And they should start Thursday night in Charlotte.

John Nichols is associate editor of The Capital Times.