Sunday, September 2, 2012

Tampa, Day 3: Romney takes the stage

MITT ROMNEY'S formal nomination at the Republican National Convention was supposed to be a coronation, the star-spangled ceremonial cakewalk of a man on the path to reclaiming the presidency. What actually transpired was something more philosophically indecisive and less politically finalizing than they’d hoped.

Optically, Team Romney achieved much of its mission: to reflect a younger, more multicultural party of established party values ready for the challenges of the rest of this American Century. With a parade of governors that made a convincing nod to the nation’s evolving Latino electorate, and a speech by the nominee, Mitt Romney, that was widely considered to be at least a ground-rule double, the Romney campaign could well pretty good about delivering what they could control and walking away from the rest (paging Clint Eastwood).

“He had to achieve adequacy,” Peggy Noonan said at The Wall Street Journal. “He did.”

But digging a little further, the Republican National Convention had to be disappointing in light of the messages that were sent by the very messengers the campaign had so assiduously courted. And in retrospect, even the speech by the former Massachusetts governor seeking to replace President Obama failed to move past the corporatist pledges and campaign talking points Romney has been delivering all year.

Add to that to the concerns Romney didn’t address, reflecting an inability to think like a president rather than a CEO, and the convention ended as a glittering missed opportunity to seal the deal with the American people — to be more than the adequate he’s been since the year began.

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One after another, it seemed, the luminaries trotted out on the national stage used their time in the spotlight to advance their own personal biographies. From Nikki Haley to Chris Christie, from John Boehner to Marco Rubio to Rick Santorum, they regaled the audience with their own back stories as a backdoor way of extolling the qualifications of Mitt Romney for the presidency, and in only the most marginal way. They talked about Romney almost parenthetically.

Preceded by the accidental comic relief of Clint Eastwood, Mitt Romney took the stage on Friday at the Tampa Bay Times Forum having inherited a mission of his own. He needed to fully share the humanizing components of his biography, those very facets of his history that to this point in the campaign he’s been most reluctant to share.

He ran a risk: The more he opens his past to pubic scrutiny, the more he tells us who and what he is, the more people will want to know. If that happened, Romney would be hard-pressed to return to form, to being silent as the Sphinx on personal aspects of a relentlessly public life.

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AND SO on Friday, Mitt Romney doubled down on his own private nature. Taking the stage, it was obvious; the man’s wooden professionalism was in evidence — the smile that’s not a smile was firmly in place, no teeth showing at all on the biggest day of his political life, not so much a smile as a charitable smirk.

And when he began speaking, it was clear Romney was all business even when he didn’t have to be. His opening words were absent of poetry, empty of a grasp of the moment of the moment. “Mr. Chairman, and delegates, I accept your nomination for president of the United States.”

Romney addressed the audience with his own history lesson — not his history, but a view of history beginning with “the possibilities of a new president” in 2008, and how that election reflected the “very optimism that is uniquely American.” Fast forward to the disappointment under President Obama in all things economic. Hope and change, he said, was what “America voted for. … It is not just what we wanted, it is not just what we expected. It is what Americans deserved.”

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What followed was more of the blame game that’s been a Romney campaign staple for months: Obama was at fault for the overall state of the economy, the price of gas at the pump, the collapse of the housing market and the disappearance of Jimmy Hoffa.

But Romney eventually gravitated to his own personal story, one that reflected a deep love of family and a family’s binding ties. He told a moving story of his parents’ love, reflected in a longstanding habit of George Romney, who gave his wife, Lenore, a rose placed every morning on a bedside table. “That is how she found him the day my father died. She went looking for him because, that morning, there was no rose.”

Romney regaled the audience with personal stories of his own family; of life with wife Ann and five boys “who seemed to have a need to reenact a different world war every night.” And the candidate dutifully expanded on the joys and responsibilities of his family and how they dovetail with those of American families everywhere — families being let down by the occupant of the Oval Office.

“How many days have you woken up feeling that something really special was happening in America? ... If you felt that excitement when you voted for Barack Obama, shouldn’t you feel that way now that he’s President Obama? You know there is something wrong with the kind of job he has done as president when the best feeling you had was the day you voted for him.”

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ON AND ON it went, with Romney more or less artfully weaving elements of his biography — his pilgrim’s progress from Detroit to Harvard; the launch of Bain Capital; the importance of his Mormon faith; his Bain role in creating and building American companies — with broadsides at the Obama administration. What ultimately came across was a Chicken Little address, a laundry list of indicators of the degree to which the sky under President Obama was falling.

At last Romney came to the details we’d been hoping for: The “five steps” RomneyRyan plan to restore the nation: (1) make the United States energy independent by 2020, largely through implementing resources the Obama White House has already started; (2) “give our fellow citizens the skills they need for the jobs of today and the careers of tomorrow”; (3) “make trade work for America” with new trade treaties and crackdowns on cheaters; (4) “to assure every entrepreneur and every job creator that their investments in America will not vanish ... We will cut the deficit and put America on track to a balanced budget.” (5) Multiple response pledge: cutting taxes on businesses; “simplifying and modernizing” regulations governing small businesses; and, of course, repealing and replacing the Affordable Care Act.

There were the necessary genuflections direct to the conservative base. “As president, I’ll respect the sanctity of life. I’ll honor the institution of marriage,” Romney said to sturdy applause. And the candidate took his leap into the geopolitical realm, rattling a saber at Iran, chiding China over trade, and even taking a swipe at Russia, in the process indulging in nothing more or less than cold-war-style electioneering more consistent with someone running for the presidency in the 1990’s.

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THAT WISTFUL LOOK backwards was no accident; the man who would lead the United States into the future has a foreign-policy advisory team larded with figures from the Bush-Cheney administration, which was itself populated with people from the Bush 43 and Ford administrations.

Such willful disconnects with the future proved to be a problem, and not just for Democratic and undecided voters put off by this look through the rear-view mirror. A Republican convention heavily attended by Latino stars of the party’s future managed to not include a word about the immigration issue. A Republican convention heavily attended by female stars of the party’s future had very little to say about the future of women’s reproductive rights. And the nominee with nerve enough to give face Iran and Russia face, the man who would be commander in chief, had absolutely nothing to say about the Afghan war.

These were just a few of the shortcomings of Romney’s speech. Conservative media weighed in with some of the others. The Wall Street Journal said, in an op-ed on the speech, said “Neither he nor the entire GOP convention made a case for his economic policy agenda ... Neil Armstrong received almost as much speech time as what Mr. Romney would do specifically to spur faster growth and raise middle-class incomes.”

Everyday people had their opinions too. A Gallup poll released on Sunday found that Romney’s speech got just 38 percent positive reaction, and only 33 percent favorable marks from independent voters. It was, Gallup reported, the lowest such poll rating for any such speech since Bob Dole not-quite wowed the convention crowd in 1996.

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Rasmussen Reports’ daily tracking poll found otherwise. By Rasmussen’s reckoning, Romney realized a six-point post-convention gain — about in line with performances by other presidential tickets. But a plurality of other polls were less generous.

And never mind the polls, the overall sense of how the convention went seems to have been that the Romney convention was a generally predictable, workmanlike event that's unlikely to provoke a change in the arc of the campaign one way or the other. And that may be exactly the problem.

“He had to achieve adequacy,” Peggy Noonan observed. “He did.”

But in the pursuit of the American presidency, since when is adequacy enough?

Image credits: Romney: From RNC video feed. GOP convention logo: © 2012 2011-12 Committee on Arrangements for the 2012 Republican National Convention. Wall Street Journal logo: © 2012 Dow Jones & Company. 

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