Romney’s Closing Speech Was Good, But Was It Good Enough?
Mitt Romney's speech last night was the best he's ever given, but it's impact may have been undercut but several odd production decisions that preceded it.
After about twenty hours of speeches spread over three days, the Republican National Convention came to an end last night with Mitt Romney addressing the delegates, and the nation, in a speech that is likely to set the tone for the rest of the race:
TAMPA, Fla. — Mitt Romney accepted the Republican presidential nomination on Thursday by making a direct appeal to Americans who were captivated by President Obama’s hopeful promises of change, pledging that he could deliver what the president did not and move the country from its worst economic downturn since the Great Depression.
The speech by Mr. Romney, delivered on the closing night of the Republican convention, signaled an attempt to redefine the race around his business background, which Democrats have spent the summer attacking. He urged voters not to feel guilty about giving up on Mr. Obama, even if they were proud to support him as the nation’s first black president.
“You know there’s something wrong with the kind of job he’s done as president,” Mr. Romney said, “when the best feeling you had was the day you voted for him.”
But even as Mr. Romney delivered a pointed critique of Mr. Obama’s domestic and foreign policy, saying that he had “thrown Israel under the bus,” he also used the marquee speech of his campaign to make a case for himself. He invited people from each chapter of his life to paint a humanizing portrait to help voters see him with a trusting eye.
“This president can tell us it was someone else’s fault. This president can tell us that the next four years he’ll get it right,” Mr. Romney said. “But this president cannot tell us that you are better off today than when he took office.”
With 67 days remaining before Election Day, the presidential race has been essentially locked in place, with each side hoping to win over a small slice of the electorate that is still undecided. The Democratic Party will offer its rebuttal at its own convention next week in North Carolina, with voters being left to judge whether either party advanced its case.
The speech loomed as Mr. Romney’s most important since he began openly exploring his presidential aspirations nearly a decade ago. It was an opportunity to present himself to Americans who are just now beginning to tune in to this campaign and to make the case against Mr. Obama, particularly to the people who voted for him.
“If you felt that excitement when you voted for Barack Obama, shouldn’t you feel that way now that he’s President Obama?” Mr. Romney said.
The Republican convention, which had been delayed earlier in the week by Tropical Storm Isaac, ended in a rousing and respectful acclamation for Mr. Romney. While he has often been viewed with suspicion by conservative activists, he is now widely seen in a new light as a man who stands a strong chance of winning back the White House.
In a campaign where foreign policy has often been a side note, Mr. Romney showed that he does not intend to shy away from aggressively challenging Mr. Obama’s foreign policy. He said the president had “abandoned our friends in Poland,” been duped by Iran and been too weak toward Russia.
“Every American was relieved the day President Obama gave the order and SEAL Team 6 took out Osama bin Laden,” Mr. Romney said. “But on another front, every American is less secure today because he has failed to slow Iran’s nuclear threat.”
Nate Silver observed that the Mitt Romney we saw last night was the essentially true to form:
TAMPA, Fla. — The risk-taking Mitt Romney who picked Representative Paul D. Ryan as his running mate was not on display in Tampa on Thursday night.
Instead, in accepting the Republican nomination, Mr. Romney delivered a mostly well-written and reasonably well-delivered speech — but one that largely avoided policy substance or sweeping narrative, instead seeking to turn the election back into a referendum on President Obama.
Mr. Romney’s strategy was pretty clear. He was seeking to fulfill the role of the generic Republican — a safe and unobjectionable alternative with a nice family and a nice career – and whose main credential is that he is not Mr. Obama, the Democratic president with tepid approval ratings and middling economic numbers.
It may be a smart approach. Mr. Obama’s approval ratings remain only break-even. A clear majority of voters still think the country is on the wrong track. Somewhat contrary to the conventional wisdom, the economy does not necessarily point to a defeat for Mr. Obama based on the models that political scientists and economists use to describe it — but it is not making Mr. Obama’s re-election effort easy.
To the extent there is a metric that clearly reads negatively for Mr. Romney, it is the respective favorability ratings of the candidates. Mr. Obama’s ratings remain net-positive in most polls, while Mr. Romney’s remain net-negative.
It was in seeking to remedy that difference where Mr. Romney’s speech most broke out of its shell: first, in trying to give voters permission to vote Mr. Obama out of office even if they like him personally; and second, with a series of nostalgic and sometimes touching moments about Mr. Romney’s family.
Peter Suderman, on the other hand, takes Romney to task for the relative lack of substance:
It’s kind of amazing, actually. Romney managed to say even less about what he would do as president than he usually does. Despite Republican Vice Presidential nominee Paul Ryan’s promise earlier today that Romney would discuss his plans for the country in “granular” detail, Romney offered almost nothing in the way of a governing vision, much less specific legislative goals. Instead, he criticized Obama for running up too much debt, and, in practically the same breath, for cutting spending on Medicare and the defense budget. Vote Republican!
Joe Klein, however, argues that the lack of substance doesn’t really matter, and calls the speech “smart”:
I think Mitt Romney just gave a very smart speech. It wasn’t a particularly stirring one, and it was certainly as insubstantial as any I’ve ever heard. It was rhetorical comfort food, a Father Knows Best speech. And perhaps the perfect antidote to the rhetorical excesses of all sorts we’ve experienced over the past four years-not just the President’s, but those of Romney’s own party
I am not sure the speech was “a game-changer.” I am not sure it “moved the needle.” I’m not sure it will be remembered beyond tomorrow, or that it was watched by sufficient numbers of people tonight to make a difference. But it did lay down a subtle challenge for the President: Explain why your contract should be extended. Explain it in a way we can understand. And it laid down a stylistic challenge as well: in these difficult times, is it really necessary for you to accept your nomination in a football field in front of 74,000 people (as Obama will next week)? Do we really need those bread and circuses?
Romney’s speech added zilch to the substance of the campaign, but it may change the tone. If this is the candidate Romney really wants to be, it will be more difficult for his sleazy array of casino and fossil-fuel plutocrats to flood the air with negative ads-the contrast with the candidate he purports to be will be too stark-but it will also be harder for the President to continue his demolition job on his opponent. We will see how long the quiet glow lasts. But I don’t think I’ve ever seen such an unexceptional speech set such a powerful mood. It was certainly Romney’s best night as a candidate.
I tend to agree. Say whatever one might about the speech itself, I think it was the best speech that Romney could have given as a candidate and I’d challenge anyone to name another speech he’s given that was any better. Going into last night, Romney needed to make two cases to the American public. The first is one that other speakers had been making all week at the convention, that the country is headed in the wrong direction and that the man currently occupying the White House isn’t capable of reversing course either because he advocates the wrong policies or because he lacks the leadership skills. The second task was to make the case that he’s the man to hand the task to, and that he’s both competent enough and compassionate enough to do the job. On that argument he was aided to a great degree by the speakers that came before him, including members of the Mormon community he’d led in Massachusetts who spoke of the work that he did, often in very emotional terms. There were also several speakers from Romney’s days at Bain, including Tom Stemberg, the co-founder of Staples, who spoke of the work Romney did there in a far more detailed manner than either the campaign or the RNC had in the past. Romney picked up on both of these themes in his speech, talking about his faith and his time at Bain in far more detail than he had in the past. As James Joyner noted, Romney did try to spin the story of the creation of Bain Capital in a manner that doesn’t quite fit in with the real story. I’m honestly not sure why he and his advisers it was necessary to do that. For the most part, though, Romney’s speech did what it needed to do by introducing him, again, to the American public and setting the tone for the campaign. I don’t think anyone could have reasonably expected him to do any better than he did last night.
The problem for Mitt Romney is that his speech may have been undercut by some very bizarre stage management on the part of the people who ran and the convention. As they had the two night’s before, the three broadcast networks only covered the 10-11pm hour of the convention and the cable news networks, while present in the convention hall and broadcasting, spend the two hours before that switching between covering speeches and subjecting audiences to “analysis” by their experts. As a result, many people didn’t see what may have been some of the most effective parts of the night, the speeches by Romney’s former congregants and business associates. If they tuned into the broadcast networks, they also did not see the particularly effective Romney tribute video, because it played before the 10:00 Eastern hour. Instead, the first thing they saw was the utterly bizarre and completely inexplicable performance by Clint Eastwood that, while amusing for many of the people in the hall, completely stepped all over the theme of the night, which was supposed to be Mitt Romney. That Eastwood performance burned up fifteen minutes of the most important hour of the night. Indeed, perusing the morning shows this morning it seemed like there was more discussion of the Eastwood performance than there was of the candidate’s speech. Click on over the Memeorandum this morning and you’ll find the top third of the page taken up by links to articles about Eastwood, not Romney. That is proof right there that the entire Eastwood stunt was a mistake.
In the end, I’m not sure any of that will matter. Voters aren’t likely to remember very much about Romney’s speech over the next ten weeks, and the only thing they’ll remember about Clint Eastwood is the fact that he was there. However, there were several blown opportunities here, specifically in the area of allowing the public to see the private side of Mitt Romney. Instead of a rambling monologue by an aging Hollywood star, we should have seen one of those testimonials from Romney’s fellow Mormon’s, or his co-workers at Bain, or even that campaign video, which is usually the traditional way that the nominee is introduced. There were no major disasters here, just a whole lot of missed opportunities, and in an election as close as this one, every missed opportunity is one that could end up being very important.