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

Thursday, August 30, 2012

Today's Wind

Republican National Convention – Night Two

During his speech last night, Republican Vice-President nominee Paul Ryan bemoaned President Obama and his Administration as out of ideas to fix America’s problems, comparing them to “a ship trying to sail on yesterday’s wind.” Whether you love or hate him and his policies, Ryan did an effective job not only in taking the wind out of Obama’s sails but also putting forth himself – and, oh yeah, Mitt Romney – as today’s wind.

Many speakers last night took shots at Obama that should have resonated with the Republican core. Yet the crowd in the hall remained curiously subdued. Mike Huckabee stirred a little genuine enthusiasm out of them but the tide really turned and a wave began building with Condoleezza Rice that finally came crashing into shore with Ryan deftly surfing it.

Vice-President nominee Paul Ryan
addresses the Republican convention
Rice’s speech was much praised by commentators from both sides of the aisle because its tone was statesmanlike rather than crassly political – Rice never mentioned Obama by name once. Yet it was hyper-partisan and a tribute to the neoconservative principles of the George W. Bush Administration in which Rice served as National Security Advisor and, later, Secretary of State.

As such, Rice initially focused on foreign policy, a topic largely absent from speeches to that point. She began by asking, “Where does America stand?” Unsurprisingly, she advocated strong support for democracy and freedom abroad, including the need for future nation building activities. She tacitly acknowledged voters weariness with oversea wars and crises but avowed, “We cannot be reluctant to lead – and one cannot lead from behind.”

Then she stealthily but systematically practiced the Bush Administration trick of incorporating various domestic policy matters as important components of national security. These included promotion of the global economy and free trade, energy independence, and even education reform. In the most moving segment of her speech, she related her own story, growing up in the segregated South, to the convention’s larger meme about the American Dream. “That is the true basis of ‘American Exceptionalism’ . . . That it doesn’t matter where you came from but where you are going.”

Most importantly, she introduced the primary theme that Ryan would hammer away at repeatedly in his speech – the danger of America settling for what she perceived as failed policies. “To do anything less is to tear apart the fabric of who we are and cement a turn toward grievance and entitlement . . . The most compassionate and freest country on the face of the earth [must] continue to be the most powerful!”

Liberal columnist E.J. Dionne of the Washington Post was genuinely impressed by Rice, viewing her speech as “more serious and, yes, more Presidential than any other speech on Wednesday night. She outshined Paul Ryan.”

Sandwiched between Rice and Ryan, New Mexico Governor Susanna Martinez was presumably chosen to appeal to both women and Hispanic voters. Regardless of whether she succeeded in these objectives, she established herself as an unexpected rising star in conservative politics. Her speech had three lines that drew ovations from the hall.

In the first, she described how her parents decided to start a security guard business, in which she patroled parking lots during Catholic Church bingos at the tender age of eighteen. “Now my dad made sure I could take care of myself. I carried a Smith and Wesson 357 magnum.” The resulting roar of approval demonstrates that Second Amendment concerns carry far more widely and deeply among conservatives than the NRA.

In the second, she described losing her job as a young prosecutor after she decided to testify against her boss. “So, I took him on, ran against him for District Attorney, and beat him by a landslide.” The crowd loved it again. Beyond celebrating her own spunkiness, Martinez was illustrating a much-cherished conservative apologue that hard-working, ambitious people will ultimately always come out ahead when faced with adversity.

But her most appreciated line was when Martinez explained her conversion to conservatism. A lifelong Democrat, she was invited to lunch by two GOP officials. She and her husband attended only out of politeness. However, the issues talked about by the officials resonated with Martinez so deeply that “when we left that lunch, we got in the car and I looked over at [my husband] and said, ‘I'll be damned, we're Republicans’.” It appealed to the crowd’s smug assurance that all Americans are really conservatives at heart.

Finally, it was Ryan’s turn. Many political observers had celebrated his selection for the ticket by Romney, arguing it would turn the election into one about ideas rather than partisan attacks and fear mongering. That was certainly not the Ryan on stage last night. Ryan built his reputation as the fiscal guru of the GOP. He brought the knives he previously used to trim budgets and used them with surgical precision last night on President Obama.

He accepted his Party’s nomination for Vice President not as the usual honor but as a “duty to help lead our nation out of a jobs crisis and back to prosperity.” He made it abundantly clear that he felt following current Obama policies for the next four year would guarantee a permanent end to prosperity, opportunity, and individual liberty. He showed a definite flair for rhetoric.

“After four years of getting the run-around, America needs a turnaround,” “a Presidency adrift, surviving on slogans that already seem tired, grasping at a moment that has already passed,” “[Obama] assumed office almost four years ago – isn’t it about time he assumed responsibility?”

Perhaps his most damning assault was a true anecdote about a 2008 visit from candidate Obama to a GM auto plant in Ryan’s hometown of Janesville Wisconsin. Obama assured the crowd that government and industry, working together, could keep the plant open “another 100 years.” In reality, Ryan continued, the plant closed shortly thereafter and remains empty today.

Ryan knows the ideas he brings to the campaign are unpopular with many voters, so he simply ignored them, instead concentrating on painting Obama and his Administration as so failed and out of solutions that any change would be preferable. In this he was spectacularly successful. Near the end of his speech, he boiled down the “who owns the bad economy?” debate in terms Democrats will have a tough time dismissing. “The issue is not the economy as Barack Obama inherited it, not the economy as he envisions it, but this economy as we are living it.”

It is true, as many pundits have frothed at the mouth this morning, that Ryan often told only half the story. However, this really was not his job last night the onus is on the Democratic National Convention to counter and refute his charges next week. The story Ryan did tell, he told well.

As Michael Gerson of the Washington Post observed, “It featured not only good lines but good lines of argument . . . [Ryan] managed to make the Obama appeal — so fresh and vivid four years ago — seem used and tattered.” Dorothy Rabinowitz at the Wall Street Journal agrees. “Paul Ryan's gift is his capacity to communicate emotional force on issues that don't normally lend themselves to such things . . . Ryan's capacity to deliver the heartfelt logic that makes such [issues] strike home is remarkable.”

After the speech concluded, Rabinowitz’s Journal colleague, Daniel Henninger, enthused, “Ryan hit a 450-foot shot into the upper deck. Gives Mitt the lead and now he has to hold it.”

Unfortunately, Romney has a history of having trouble holding on. Another thing that Ryan made little effort to do was humanizing his running mate. This will leave Romney with the task of introducing himself to voters on his own as well as laying out any specific vision/policies he intends to pursue. And he must do all this with a crowd that has never warmed to him throughout the campaign. Indeed, Ryan’s very success may have more than one Republican wondering, for at least the next twenty-four hours, whether the Party has once again put the wrong name at the top of the ticket.

The challenge for Romney tonight is to avoid letting an easy grounder roll through his legs, like the error committed by Red Sox first baseman Bill Buckner in the 1986 World Series. If he commits a boner play, Romney could once again deny a Massachusetts team victory and glory. Will Romney ride the wind or break wind?

Grades –
     Rice – A+
     Martinez – A
     Ryan – A+
     Night Two Overall – A

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