Wednesday, August 29, 2012

Tampa, Day 1: Résumés on the convention floor

A NUMBER OF spot reactions to the baffling, sporadically spontaneous first night of the 2012 Republican National Convention lit up the news cycle and the blogosphere for much of last night and into this morning.

Some of them focused on the intended targets of the parade of governors that was much of last night’s lineup; others paid attention to the tone and style and stagecraft of the event itself, or the potential dissidents of the Ron Paul campaign sent packing to the nether reaches of the Tampa Bay Times Forum — a sign of discord within the ranks at the event that’s supposed to show how unified the Republican Party is.

Leave it to Rachel Maddow, the wicked-smaht MSNBC show host and analyst, to put things into accessible perspective when the first day’s show was over. “What the Republican Party most did tonight was make the case for their bench, if not for the team that’s on the field — at least the team that might be on the field in four years.”

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The convention was hampered by its own rain delay; Hurricane/Tropical Storm Isaac, which was blasting ashore during the convention and in the hours after that, was a justifiable shadow distraction (one that Ann Romney mentioned from the stage). But the bigger distraction was at the arena and became a central theme of the evening.

With few exceptions, the speakers, from South Carolina Gov. Nikki Haley to New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie, from House Speaker John Boehner to former Pennsylvania Sen. Rick Santorum offered Horatio Alger/Norman Rockwell personal biographies that tried to impart the visions of a collective imagined past and how they would reclaim that past from the monster now occupying the Oval Office.

Their oratories had precious little to do with Mitt Romney and everything to do with themselves, and using the stage of a national convention to advance their stars at the expense of the star of the show.

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WE WON’T drill down into each of them here. Suffice it to say they used their moment in the convention sun to recount hardscrabble personal histories; stories of sacrifice, initiative and personal drive; a love of family and the importance of family in the national experience; a bullet-point rundown of what they’ve accomplished in office; and a call for the nation to do better than it’s done in the last four years.

And oh yeah, Mitt Romney can help us do that.

Beyond that bewildering consistency of advertisements for themselves, last night was not a good night. The speakers seemed almost willfully disconnected from the nominee; and there was no overarching theme behind their speeches. It’s as if the speakers were satellites in search of a body around which to orbit. If there were expectations that this group of governors would close the sale on Romney as the nominee, it didn’t happen.

You got a clear sense of the confusion in the messages by distilling two of the more accidentally meaningful quotes of the night:

Ann Romney, wife of the candidate, sought to set politics aside and focus on Mitt the domestic man: husband and father. “Tonight, I want to talk to you about love.”

Minutes later, Christie, the night’s appointed rhetorical pit bull, used an instruction from his mother in childhood to express what Republicans needed: “Tonight we’re going to choose respect over love.”

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This disconnect was even more obvious when Mitt Romney himself stepped onto the stage he’ll own on Thursday night, to give wife Ann a hug after her generally successful address. Romney wasn’t exactly animatronic, but his gestures and his mien seemed so scripted, so precise as to suggest a man out of touch with what’s happening around him.

You could see it again as he watched other speakers: barely moving, face maintaining the same quasi-smirk that’s been there from the beginning, the mask that must not break.

On MSNBC, Chris Matthews observed: “Romney looked like Prince Charles visiting New Guinea.”

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ONE WRITER, Peter Beinert weighing in at The Daily Beast, suggests that may not be as big an optical unforced error as it might seem. For Beinert, Christie’s pugnacious keynote address was a reminder that “ideologically, this campaign isn’t about Mitt Romney. It’s about Paul Ryan.”

It’s been clear from the day he was tapped: In the absence of a defining philosophical energy from the man at the top of the ticket, Ryan, the newly-minted vice-presidential contender from Wisconsin has stepped in to fill that void. And that’s a problem.

A strong No. 2, a formidable running mate can shore up the one at the top of the ticket, can help mend the nominee in the broken places. That’s a much bigger challenge when the nominee’s got nothing but broken places.

Never mind the fact that Ryan as the policy center of the campaign is exactly upside-down from how it should be, with the soon-to-be standard-bearer calling the campaign’s existential shots. The problem is what Ryan inherited when he signed on.

A national survey released Wednesday by the Pew Research Center and The Washington Post found, among other things, that 37 percent of respondents viewed Ryan favorably, 35 percent viewed him unfavorably, and 28 percent were neutral in their views.

Ryan’s heir to the same lock on favorables in the 30th percentile that Romney has been posting all year.

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Ryan himself takes the stage tonight, and we can no doubt expect he won’t be making an infomercial for his services in 2016. Ryan has been loyal to the ticket he’s a part of. Tonight, we can expect more talk of Romney’s virtues and bona fides high up in the speech, as well as some of the wonkish insider perspective that makes Ryan such a campaign asset for the true believers.

But the pressure’s building for Romney himself to emerge from behind the curtain. And stay there. That needs to happen, one way or another, on Thursday night.

Only he can resolve the disjunction between the kinder, gentler Mitt Romney promoted by his wife and the Mitt Romney who professes faith in the American economy while keeping much money outside the American economy; the Mitt Romney who’d repeal the Affordable Care Act, raising health-care costs for the people least able to afford it; the Mitt Romney who threatens to shut down Planned Parenthood, leaving millions of the same American women his wife championed last night struggling to pay for their singular health-care needs; the Mitt Romney who blithely revives the corrosive birther meme with no consideration of what it says about the Republican Party, about his campaign, or about … Mitt Romney.

Last night, Ann Romney did her best to persuade the nation there’s blood in the mannequin who’ll accept the nomination for the presidency on Thursday. But what she knows about him couldn’t be communicated in twenty minutes of scenes from the Romney family scrapbook.

She did her best, but Ann Romney can’t humanize Mitt Romney. Only Mitt Romney can do that.

Image credits: GOP convention logo: © 2012 2011-12 Committee on Arrangements for the 2012 Republican National Convention. Romney-Ryan logo: from the campaign Web site. Mitt and Ann Romney: Associated Press/J. Scott Applewhite. Ryan: © Gage Skidmore. 

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