The right eloquence needs no bell to call the people together and no constable to keep them. ~ Emerson

Wednesday, August 29, 2012

Holding Hands with the American Dream

Republican National Convention – Night One

An unquestioned goal of this Republican National Convention is to “sell” its nominee, Mitt Romney, both to the members of the Party base within the hall as well as still undecided American voters. Even with a scheduled compressed by bad weather, I still assumed that tonight might focus on attacking President Obama, thereby building an argument as to why change in leadership is needed. The theme “We Built This” for the first night – a direct refute of an Obama quote that success is never the product of a single individual’s efforts – seemed to reinforce that idea.

While there was plenty of Obama criticism, the blitzkrieg I expected did not happen. Yet neither did speakers extoll Romney’s virtues beyond the usual boilerplate endorsements, usually toward the end of their speeches. Instead, of begging voters to love their nominee, Republicans seemed more comfortable asking voters to love their Party. Because, make no mistake, the GOP repeatedly avowed its love for America and the American Dream.
Ann Romney basks in the love.

The three speeches that most interested me were those by former Pennsylvania Senator and Presidential aspirant Rick Santorum, current New Jersey Governor Chris Christie, and Ann Romney, wife of the nominee. I thought all of them were generally good speeches, with moments of obvious sincerity and passion for their topics at hand. Love was the common theme shared by them.

Santorum spoke first and was discernibly the voice of social conservatism for the evening. He spoke of the importance of marriage, strong family values, and a good education in building strong societies and decried their perceived lack in contemporary America.

He was most moving when speaking about his youngest daughter, Bella, who was born with Trisomy 18, a rare genetic disorder. Ninety percent of children diagnosed with the condition do not survive their first year of life. Those who do survive suffer significant health complications.  Santorum related how doctors explained this to his wife and him, suggesting Bella “would not have a life worth living” and urging them to “prepare to let go.”

“We didn't let go,” Santorum then thundered, “and today Bella is full of life and she has made our lives and countless others much more worth living.” He then parlayed the palpable good feelings generated by his story into a plug for the Party’s pro-life platform plank. “ I thank God that America still has one Party that reaches out their hands in love to lift up all of God's children . . . to live the American Dream.”

I celebrate Bella’s short, beautiful life but wonder if it occurred to Santorum that it was made possible only through the freedom of his family to choose it for her, even in defiance of what might seem ethical, medically advisable, or economically prudent to others. Moreover, Bella is a miracle but even she did not build her existence by herself.

Santorum repeatedly exhorted the American Dream, lionizing his grandfather, who brought his family to America from Wales. “My grandfather, like millions of other immigrants, didn't come here for some government guarantee of income equality or government benefits to take care of his family. In 1923 there were no government benefits for immigrants except one – Freedom!” Apparently, opportunity allows no room for compassion. Santorum also noted, with apparent pride, that his grandfather “mined coal 'til he was seventy-two years old.” Opportunity allows no room for Social Security or Medicare either.

Christie’s speech was much anticipated and he did not disappoint. His address held a curious duality to my ears. While it was a paean to conservative principles, it also stressed many concepts that rose beyond partisanship – such as shared sacrifice, compromise, and truthfulness. It often seemed as much a lecture at Mitt Romney as an endorsement of him.

Nowhere was this more evident than when Christie proclaimed, to huge applause, “Real leaders do not follow polls. Real leaders change polls.” This seemed at odds with Romney’s tendency over his political career to morph chameleon-like into whatever icon the situation and his would-be followers demand.

However, Christie had an answer to the problem that Republicans just cannot seem to bring themselves to love their nominee. “Tonight, we are going to choose respect over love,” he reassured the crowd. It was just part of being responsible. He remembered his mother had taught him that “respect could grow into real and lasting love.” Christie gave a credible show of respect for Romney. His love was reserved for the American Dream.

Yet his love was filled with anxiousness that aligned with the Tea Party’s deepest fears. “I don’t know about you, but I don’t want my children and grandchildren to have to read in a history book what it was like to live in an American Century . . . I want them to live in a second American Century.”

Although Christie repeatedly avowed his belief and optimism in the American Dream, it took Santorum to state an unequivocal certainty in it. “America is still the greatest country in the world – and with God's help and good leadership we can restore the American Dream. [While campaigning,] I held its hand. I shook the hand of the American Dream.”

For all its forcefulness and positive reception, Christie’s speech was not universally acknowledged as brilliant. Jennifer Rubin, a conservative columnist for the Washington Post labeled Christie “a force of nature,” who “repeatedly had the crowd on its feet, making a virtue of unpopular, tough-minded politics. On a scale of 1 to 10, his [speech] was an 11.”

Yet her colleague Jonathan Bernstein dismissed the speech as “empty platitude after empty platitude.” Another fellow columnist, Matt Miller, took issue with Christie as a self-described truth-teller. “For Republicans, that means acknowledging the truth that taxes must rise above their historic levels as the boomers age and we double the number of people on Social Security and Medicare. You cannot qualify as a truth-teller without speaking this truth. Christie fails this test . . . So does the rest of the GOP.”

Moreover, Christie’s speech did not contain the single largest applause line of the evening. That distinction went to Ann Romney.

Her speech also held a dual quality for me. It was as though it were in two parts. The first one, which she was presumably ordered to write by the Party leadership, was meant as an attempt to offer a glimpse of the real Mitt Romney and humanize him to a suspicious base as well as voters in general. She was largely unsuccessful in this attempt. Cute stories about how they ate off an ironing board during their first year of marriage did not convince that the Romneys share/understand the problems of many middle class and impoverished families.

However, the speech had a second half that seemed to come more from the heart and it was highly effective, in my opinion. It was not an insight into her husband but a testimonial to him. She defended his success and wealth and praised his generosity and work ethic. “This is the man who will work harder than anyone so that we can work a little less hard. I can't tell you what will happen over the next four years. But I can only stand here tonight, as a wife, a mother, a grandmother, an American, and make you this solemn commitment . . .”

Mrs. Romney paused, locked her eyes on the television cameras, and then delivered the line that brought the house down.

“This man will not fail.”

The ovation that followed seemed to flow out of a sense of relief as much as anything else. It had taken most of the evening and the guy’s own wife to do it, but here was at least one Republican ready to declare, with absolute certainty, that the rest of them had not made a mistake in picking their standard bearer for November.

Ross Douthat of the New York Times posits this part of the speech “portrayed the Republican nominee for President as a man for rather than of the people.” I am dubious Romney can be sold as the conservative equivalent of a Roosevelt reformer – in the spirit of Teddy and FDR – but it is a starting point to finally begin defining him for voters.

After Christie’s speech, syndicated columnist and PBS commentator Mark Shields noted that, in thirty minutes, the keynote speaker had told him everything Shields needed to know about who Christie was as a person and what principles drove him. In comparison, continued Shields, Christie had told him nothing of the sort about Mitt Romney. Paul Ryan is up Wednesday night. Perhaps he can do the job.

Grades –
     Santorum – A
     Ann Romney – B
     Christie – B+
     First Night Overall – B+

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