By R. Alan Clanton
Thursday Review Editor
Tampa, Florida: If conventions no longer offer genuine Old School drama—floor fights, struggles over planks and platforms, or, God forbid, an actual battle over the outcome of the nomination—they at least still offer party loyalists a moment of unity and energy, as well as a roll-out of the candidate’s message and theme. For both Democrats and Republicans, it’s an opportunity to burnish the candidate’s image in front of millions of television viewers.
The events may be staged, the arrangements choreographed, and the words carefully scripted—but these are the things that pass for drama in a political process marked by early primaries and caucuses and a media culture which hangs on every moment.
For the GOP faithful gathered in Tampa, Thursday night’s show was about as rousing as one evening of political stagecraft can get without surprise or spontaneity, unless you conclude that Clint Eastwood’s 12 minute comedic improvisation appearance was in fact a shock to the delegates and media.
But the distraction of Eastwood’s meandering performance art aside—and there will surely be plenty of conversations about that over the next few days—the question is simple: did GOP nominee Mitt Romney and his predecessors on the stage effectively set the tone and tenor for the next eight-plus weeks’ worth of campaigning? And was he successful in reaching out to independent voters and potentially disaffected Democrats?
The answer is yes. Romney, on the whole, hit a home run, though one could argue that he did not quite hit the ball out of the park. No matter, other batters of the evening more than made up for it by consistently ramping up the energy level—but more about that later.
Romney’s acceptance speech to the GOP delegates, alternates, guests and assorted media was an even mix of the two important priorities for the former governor: make a connection with Americans, something that will convince voters of his warmth, his generosity and his personal story—the “genuine” factor. But just as important was his desire to sharpen his ongoing message to voters—it’s all about the economy.
After an eloquent and rousing introduction by rising GOP star Florida Senator Marco Rubio, a speech in which the young Senator said “no matter how you feel about President Obama, this election is about your future, not his,” Romney made it clear that he and his Republican followers intend to take the message of a failed economy—and the failure of President Obama to bring about recovery—directly to the voters at every opportunity. This is the “are you better off than you were four years ago?” tack, the semi-rhetorical question which Ronald Reagan posed so effectively at voters in 1980 in his quest to deny incumbent Jimmy Carter another four years in the White House.
Paraphrasing Reagan’s words slightly, Paul Ryan had asked much the same question on Wednesday night. Romney, on the other hand, went straight to the heart of the matter, referring directly to Reagan’s famous debate performance and equating voter loss-of-confidence in Jimmy Carter with Obama’s record on handling of the economy.
“I wish President Obama had succeeded,” Romney told supporters, “because I want America to succeed. But his promises gave way to disappointment and division. This isn’t something we have to just accept. Now is the moment we can do something. Now is the time when we can stand up and say I’m an American, I make my destiny, and I deserve better.”
Again, another echo of Reagan’s words from 1980, and another reminder that Romney intends to make this election a referendum on Obama’s performance on the economy.
Romney, like his running-mate Ryan the night before, offered outreach and even conciliatory words for Obama, likening the new President’s words in 2008 to other feelings of security and happiness in the typical American’s life—from parents with kids in college, to the adult who discovers that they have more time for their kid’s soccer games.
“Many of you felt that way on Election Day four years ago,” Romney said, “because Hope and Change had a powerful appeal. But tonight I ask a simple question: 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’s something wrong with the kind of job he’s done as President when the best feeling you had was the day you voted for him.”
Amidst heavy applause from the GOP faithful in Tampa, this was another echo of Reagan, and another stark reminder of Jimmy Carter’s politically fatal failure to bring about economic improvement 32 years ago. For Romney, this is not nostalgia—this is the heart of the matter for voters when they make their choice in November.
Romney said that Obama’s failure was not the result of a deliberate act, but the result of a president untrained and unskilled in the ways of business and job creation. “Jobs to him,” said Romney, “are all about government.”
The GOP nominee highlighted his successes in business through his work at Bain Capital, such as The Sports Authority, Staples and Steel Dynamics.
“These are American success stories,” Romney told the audience and television viewers, “and yet the centerpiece of the President’s entire re-election campaign is attacking success. Is it any wonder that someone who attacks success had led the worst economic recovery since the Great Depression? In America, we celebrate success, we don’t apologize for it!”
This brought another roar of approval from the people crowded into Tampa Convention Center. Then, after references to failures and successes, setbacks and eventual business victories by Bain and others—including the story of how Steve Jobs was fired by Apple only to return to the company later (“he came back and changed the world,” said Romney—the former governor brought his theme back to that moment of clarity.
“That is why every president since the Great Depression who came before the American people asking for a second term could look back at the last four years and say with satisfaction, you are better off today than you were four years ago…except Jimmy Carter…and except this president.”
Though thin on his own specifics—a point which will no doubt be stressed in some mainstream media outlets—those in the audience were wildly enthusiastic about Romney’s message. Clearly, Romney and Ryan will attempt to keep President Obama trapped in this corner of the boxing ring. Romney will take what was previously seen—by a few—as his second biggest liability (his first being the now threadbare argument that he lacks conviction and heart) and turn it into his strongest asset: the former Bain manager and businessman knows how to create jobs, a tack designed to deflect and diffuse the Democrats best wedge, that talking point which says that this election is about the “haves” versus the “have-nots.”
“This president can ask us to be patient,” Romney said in his acceptance speech, “this president can tell us it was someone else’s fault. This president can tell us that in the next four years he’ll get it right. But this president cannot tell us that you are better off today than when he took office.”
Romney offered a five point plan which included the goal of energy independence for the U.S. by 2020, training for American workers to improve productivity and competitiveness (this included school choice), an re-write of trade agreements (and better enforcement), deficit-reduction, and improved conditions for small business—which Romney said must include “repealing and replacing Obamacare.”
On the whole, long term media reaction to the speech may prove to be positive, though the spin from Democratic analysts on CNN and other networks was instantly negative. (Democratic Party analyst Paul Begala lambasted the speech as the worst of the convention).
Still, Mitt Romney accomplished what he had set out to do: solidify his relationship with the GOP conservatives and sharpen the language of his attacks on President Obama.
But even more importantly, Romney wanted to give Americans a chance to size up his passion. By returning to the narrative of Ronald Reagan, Romney may have succeeded in that goal on Thursday night.