It all led up to this: the Presidential Nomination Acceptance speech of Willard Mitt Romney. This is why we watched a string of speakers tell us that Mitt Romney was…you know…not so bad. This is why we watched Paul Ryan spout easily fact-checked lies with lizard-like ease. And it’s why we watched Clint Eastwood tell a chair to get off his lawn.
First, the good news for Republicans: this was the best speech Mitt Romney has delivered. His speaking style continued to show weaknesses – more on this later — but the wooden, stilted Romney mostly gave way to a smooth and confident demeanor. Rehearsals clearly paid off.
But I do not ascribe to the school of rhetoric that suggests that pretty delivery and a few cheap rhetorical flourishes make a smart speech. A speech of this gravity needs a theme, a connecting thread that can rally the average American to a cause. It needs a catchphrase for that vision, a bumper-sticker slogan that can serve as short-hand to trigger memories of the speech. Finally, in a nod to the modern era of politics, it needs about 4 segments of 15 seconds or less that are prime sound bite material that the campaign is comfortable with America watching ad nauseum for the next 72 hours.
In all these areas, Mitt Romney failed. I felt as though there were too many cooks – speechwriters and advisors tossed out ideas and they were all added without filter into the final product.
I could not discern a connecting theme. Personally I saw two possible approaches: (1) I’m the “Smartest Guy In the Room” – a serious technocrat who can succeed where Obama failed; or, (2) “You’re probably itching to vote against Obama and just looking for a good human being to vote for and trust me I won’t eat your babies.” So what happened?
Perhaps Clint Eastwood was meant to set the tone of the night after all, because Romney is plagued by an inability to stay on topic.
He opens, after pleasantries by setting the stage for the idea that Americans invested a great deal of hope in Barack Obama 4 years ago.
Four years ago, I know that many Americans felt a fresh excitement about the possibilities of a new president. That president was not the choice of our party but Americans always come together after elections. We are a good and generous people who are united by so much more than what divides us.
When that hard fought election was over, when the yard signs came down and the television commercials finally came off the air, Americans were eager to go back to work, to live our lives the way Americans always have – optimistic and positive and confident in the future.
This is a decent set-up for the Romney campaign’s refrain (at least from several months ago) that Barack Obama is a nice guy who tried hard, but has unfortunately faltered.
Instead, Romney takes a 550+ word detour through shout outs to hatin’ on Castro and platitudes to the freedoms of the Bill of Rights, followed by a detailed explanation of what, in his estimation, Americans were specifically optimistic for in 2008. How long is that? At this point, this article is now 542 words long. All this before returning to close the loop and explain that Barack Obama has failed to fulfill his promises and “American Americans in America deserve better.” It was like watching a pin move ever closer to a balloon – you know where this story will end and you just need it to get there already.
At least at this point there is hope for a theme. I thought that Mitt Romney’s best approach to this speech would be to return to the “smartest guy in the room” technocratic skill persona that would flow nicely from casting Obama as empty hope and unfulfilled promises.
[Insert Screeching Halt]
Mitt Romney begins a biographical speech.
I was born in the middle of the century in the middle of the country, a classic baby boomer. It was a time when Americans were returning from war and eager to work.
Let’s put aside my well-known disdain for the “Love me, I’m a Boomer” shtick – especially from Republicans who explain those years as something other than the ultimate expression of how strong government and aggressive social programs can build a powerful economy – but this line is COMPLETELY RIPPED OFF. Hillary Clinton said in 2007 “I grew up in a middle-class family in the middle of America in the middle of the last century.”
Don’t get too comfortable with the biography because like a spastic child Romney is about to veer into Neil Armstrong’s eulogy for some reason. At least he’s not telling us the trees are the right height again.
[W]hen the world needs someone to do the really big stuff, you need an American.
Ah, that’s why Romney mentioned Neil Armstrong – to make a Birtherism reference without seeming off-puttingly obvious. Carry on.
Romney talks about his parents. Simple speech lesson – in a speech about yourself, if you explain how great someone else was, finish by saying you do the same thing. The story about the elder Romney leaving a rose for his wife every day left me waiting for the obvious follow-up “and I have followed my father’s example and do the same thing for Ann.”
By not concluding the sentence this way I was left thinking, “what a dick.”
Mitt continues his biography as a jumping off point to pander to women in the Republican Party after detailing his mother’s failed Senate run.
Remember That Earlier Framing Device
Oh good God! We’re back to the “Obama let you down” thing. Newsflash: It’s not a callback if you’ve been gone so long we’ve almost forgotten about it.
Many of you felt that way on Election Day four years ago. Hope and Change had a powerful appeal. But tonight I’d 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.
This would have been effective if it had come in the first 2 minutes of the speech. You know, next to the setup. Also, don’t step into the obvious Obama counter-campaign: “What day gave you the best feeling about the Obama Presidency?” I’m guessing affirming gay marriage, signing Lilly Ledbetter (oh, right, Mitt Romney doesn’t know what that is), establishing a health care plan or busting a cap in bin Laden might be popular days too.
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.
What is his obsession with Carter? I understand the rhetorical appeal of this line, but I continue to think the Republicans are playing a dangerous game here given that, as bad as things are, they are objectively MUCH better than they were 4 years ago.
Romney’s vision for the future is to create 12 million jobs. The CBO suggests that 12 million jobs will be created next term regardless of the President, but whatever. Romney has a 5 point plan. None of these create short-term jobs.
But at least we have an easily sound bitable passage with a list of policy concepts. If this had been placed in a “You believed in Obama…Now you don’t…Here’s what I’m going to do” structure, this could have worked. Though I still believe there is an opening for Romney to get hyper-technical and convince Americans “you may not understand what I’m saying here, but that’s because I’m the expert so just trust me.” An opening that we can probably now close. Romney will be running on vague promises and Obama will be running on vague promises and a record of turning an imploding economy into a slow recovery. Advantage: Obama.
There’s some shout outs to ending abortion and hating gays. Some explanation of how Cuba is somehow a worse threat than terror attacks on our troops in Afghanistan (a country never mentioned), some lies about Iran policy and a reminder that we need to go to war with the Soviets.
Oh no. A call and response:
Does the America we want borrow a trillion dollars from China? No.
Does it fail to find the jobs that are needed for 23 million people and for half the kids graduating from college? No.
Are its schools lagging behind the rest of the developed world? No.
Well that would seem wholly inappropriate for the tenor of the speech leading up to it, but, to borrow an old joke about the weather – if you don’t like the structure of this speech, just wait a minute.
Then he delivers the soon-to-be-infamous “President Obama promised to begin to slow the rise of the oceans and heal the planet. MY promise…is to help you and your family.” by dragging it out so long and letting the audience jeer at the idea of healing the planet that the optics of an otherwise sharp soundbite are lost. Imagine if this sentence was delivered in 8 seconds instead of 24.
Mitt Romney has 5 vague points about the long-term health of the economy and a general disdain for Cuba and Russia. Catchphrase? If anything it was “We Deserve Better.” But you see how that could be a problem…
Sound bites? The 5-point plan maybe? His other good stuff about Obama was dissected by flights of fancy about Neil Armstrong and his own biography.
The Romney folks worried that he would look and sound wooden. Well, he didn’t. He sounded hollow.