It wasn’t as bad as the Democratic Convention of 1972 which saw George McGovern give his acceptance speech at 2:00 AM, but given how conventions have become well planned and choreographed propaganda events for each party, I was shocked by how bad the GOP convention was.
Symbolic of the fiasco that blew Mitt Romney’s best chance to introduce himself anew to the American people was Clint Eastwood’s bizarre, rambling speech given at the height of prime time when everyone was tuning in. This prime time slot is precious, and anyone planning the evening should know pretty much how every minute will unfold – nothing should be a surprise.
Now, the idea of having Clint Eastwood address the convention at this time is questionable in and of itself. Eastwood’s appeal is mainly to older white males, a demographic already pretty much in Romney’s camp. When an old, rich white guy says to a stadium of Republicans “we own this country,” it’s got to cause discomfort. Some thought this move would be powerful because Eastwood had been in the GM super bowl commercial many thought friendly to Obama. But that’s only something political junkies notice. Eastwood earlier in the evening perhaps, but not at the height of prime time.
But its political malpractice to put him out there without a script! He was off message about Afghanistan, his discussion of Guantanamo Bay had no real point. His manner was, well, doddering. At times he verged on incoherence, with jokes that veered from lame to borderline offensive. It was a train wreck. Whoever thought it was a good idea to put him out there to try a bit of comedy without a pre-approved script and rehearsal should be fired.
Marco Rubio, despite taking a sip of Clint’s water, helped reclaim the momentum with a very well delivered, compelling speech. It was, in fact, the best speech of the convention (at least that was covered in prime time) and it set Rubio up for 2016 much like Obama’s 2004 Democratic keynote set him up for his 2008 run. Rubio can still be criticized. While he did have the most effective criticism of Obama, for a nomination speech he could have talked more about Romney’s accomplishments and vision. But vague seemed to be the theme of the convention.
The fiasco started on the first night. Ann Romney gave a decent speech trying a bit too hard to claim that she and Mitt were “just like any other family with problems.” Yeah, but you also had a lot of money — that helps! Still, she gave a good “first lady like” speech. Then Chris Christie’s keynote, designed to make him the 2016 favorite (or for optimistic Republicans, 2020), was a belly flop. Given Christie’s belly, that’s gotta hurt!
Christie did launch some good hits on Obama, but otherwise failed to give an overall vision of what was different about Mitt Romney’s Republican party. Much of what he said could have been said in 2004 about what Republicans stand for. Given that Romney’s chances to beat Obama are best if he stakes out new territory for the GOP – we’re not going to repeat the mistakes that created the collapse in 2008 – it isn’t that effective. Moreover there was again little talk about Romney, and lots of red meat for the audience. Conventions should motivate the true believers, but prime time is also when you have to reach out to the undecideds.
So what about Romney and Ryan? Paul Ryan gave a moderately good speech, though not as powerful as Palin’s 2008 effort. He inspired the base, but the discussion the next day was mostly about fact checkers and Republican claims that they don’t want to be limited by fact checkers. The trouble with that is that it sounds like they’re saying they don’t want to be limited by facts. Given that Ryan’s appeal has been that he is smart and honest, his foray into rhetoric stretches (to be favorable — others would say lies) damages his brand. It also was formulaic and again seemed aimed more at the base than independents.
The big disappointment, however, was Mitt Romney’s much anticipated effort to re-introduce himself to the voting public. First of all, he delivery was poor. He spoke too fast, swallowed some syllables, and his intonation was robotic and nervous. He’s no Ronald Reagan obviously. But of all the prime time speeches, his delivery was the least effective and engaging. Clearly, Romney is who is his, he was never about to become a silver tongued orator. But he’s good enough that he should have been able to have precise intonations, speak slower and with purpose, and try to connect. It felt like he was simply trying to get through it. He didn’t connect.
His content was vague — again, a theme of the convention. He launched attacks on Obama, but the attacks were generic. Any President in power during a global economic crisis could have been hit with the same charges. Unemployment is high, are you better off than you were four years ago, he’s not done enough, etc. He mentioned health care only twice, and vaguely – ‘we will repeal and replace Obamacare’. OK, how? He hardly mentioned foreign policy, and when he did it was vague, or in code.
For instance, there was an open mike incident over a year ago when President Obama told then Russian President Medvedev that he’d have more flexibility after the election. Romney last night said (I’m paraphrasing) that unlike being flexible with President Putin after the election he’d be tough from the start. First, open mike incidents are only really noticed by political junkies, that reference went way over most peoples’ heads. Second, what exactly does he mean? Is Russia our enemy now?
He didn’t mention Afghanistan and his promise for a tough foreign policy was reminiscent of the kind of talk we used to hear from Vice President Cheney — though to his credit, Cheney tended to give details. Romney finally got to his five point plan, but…it wasn’t a plan. It was a list of promises – create new jobs, become energy independent, etc. No plan, no policies, no hint of what he’d actually do, just a promise that he’d fix things. His conclusion was a tad surreal: “President Obama promised to slow the rise of the oceans and to heal the planet. My promise is to help you and your family.”
He said that with a mocking tone. That sounds good to the base, but it seemed an odd way to try to seal the deal with independents — mock concern about global warming and claim concern about our families. Huh?
The vague content, poor delivery, and general weakness of most of the rest of the speakers means that the GOP squandered its opportunity to define a new Republican party, one ready to avoid the mistakes of the Bush era and instead prepared to implement an effective pragmatic economic policy to do the job Obama failed to accomplish.
Romney still has the debates, and hundreds of millions of dollars to spend on the campaign. Given the state of the economy the convention woes aren’t fatal to his candidacy. However, given what was at stake, it must be worrisome for Republicans just how poorly team Romney planned and executed this convention.
UPDATE: In judging from other critiques of the convention I may have seen it with a bit too much bias. No one gives it glowing reviews, but most seem to think Romney did good enough. In trying to judge political efficacy one is always biased to think others see something in the same way oneself does – the art of political analysis is to try to recognize it and adapt.