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

Friday, August 31, 2012

We Own(ed) This Country

Republican National Convention – Night Three

Last night, Mitt Romney did not need to deliver the greatest speech in the history of American politics nor suddenly display telegenic charisma. He simply needed to come across as competent, decent, and memorable. He passed the first two tests adeptly enough. Not so much the final hurdle. Nobody this morning is marveling, “That Romney is a lot better than I thought.” Instead, they are all wondering aloud, “What the hell was wrong with Clint Eastwood?”

Eastwood was unquestionably entertaining to the crowd in the hall and he scored some genuine political shots against President Obama. Yet once he completed his rambling, off-script diatribe I suspect the Republican National Committee was wishing their big “mystery guest” had been a little less entertaining and a little more mysterious – certainly a little more brief, anyway.

Clint Eastwood debates a
(top), Mitt Romney
accepts the Republican
Party's nomination
Florida Senator Marco Rubio gave the formal introduction of the nominee. His speech did not contain a single memorable line or new insight, in my opinion. However, it was delivered well and did a good job summarizing and reviewing most of the themes touched upon throughout the convention. Perhaps the most charming moment was at the very start, when Rubio gushed like a star-stuck fan at having sipped water from the same bottle previously used by Eastwood.

Romney’s speech seemed a microcosm of everything good and bad about the candidate himself – it was entirely competent but a little underwhelming.

I felt that Romney would be most successful at humanizing himself not through contrived personal glimpses but by addressing, head-on, the criticisms most commonly leveled against him by Democrats. To this end, the topics I felt he most needed to speak about – in order of importance – were Romneycare, Bain Capital, his personal/family wealth, and his Mormon religion. I felt he touched on all of these issues effectively, albeit briefly, with the exception of the first and most important one.

His style was not political or oratorical so much as a quiet, serious conversation with his audience. He was successful at laying out the case for President Obama’s economic and foreign policy shortfalls/failures as well as presenting himself as an experienced and proficient businessperson who could correct them.

For me, the most effective line of the speech was “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.” It nicely fit the theme that America needed less messiahs and more mechanics in its government leaders.

Romney also laid out his vision and mandate – create twelve million new jobs during his four-year term – and laid out five high-level steps to realize it.

Yet for all this there was a valium-like quality to Romney’s words. When he stepped up to the podium, the noise and excitement levels within the convention hall were as high as I had observed them during the week. By the time he finished, the crowd had quieted down and mellowed out considerably. I felt they must have strolled out the doors rather than charging through them to take up the fight for their candidate. They came expecting a fire-breathing rally and got a PowerPoint executive presentation in its stead.

Washington Post conservative columnist Jennifer Rubin loved Romney’s self-introduction, saying he showed “a side of him that was compelling and heartbreaking.” Her peers were less impressed. Matt Miller conceded it was a “successful, energetic acceptance speech” but found it weak on policy ideas. Jonathan Bernstein dismissed it as, “A generic Republican speech [from a] generic Republican candidate.” Harold Meyerson thought it rose to the ridiculous. “There is, we now know, such a thing as too much humanization . . . Romney gave a pretty fair impression of Mr. Rogers with state power . . . It’s one thing to say you’re not Ebenezer Scrooge but there were moments when Romney seemed to be auditioning for the role of Tiny Tim.”

Romney’s continuing disconnect with his base remains the biggest millstone around his candidacy. Much like John McCain four years ago, he needed to assure his immediate hard-right Republican audience, “I’m one of you” while sending a reassuring message to Independents and moderates that “I’m not one of them.” Small wonder so many across the political spectrum find him unknowable and inauthentic.

Romney entered the hall below the podium. He walked down the aisles toward it, shaking hands with member of the crowd as he proceeded, much like a President during a State of the Union Address. He smiled, laughed, talked and joked with each person he passed. He looked confident, handsome, and strong. Yet he moved strangely – not clumsy but stiff and mechanical. He looked like a man trying to walk inside a heavy suit of armor. Then it struck me that it must be grueling trying to move, let alone run for President of the United States, when your Party will not let you feel comfortable inside your own skin.

To that end, it may have been pointless for Romney to try and show us his true face when it was not him but possibly Eastwood that was the true face of the contemporary Republican Party – not a millionaire businessman but a crotchety old man, disillusioned by changes he sees as lessening the America he remembers and determined to restore it to idealized glory; a face of the Party that deals with President Obama not as an opponent or even a person but as an imagined, invisible caricature – an empty suit in an empty chair.

The official theme for the convention’s final night was “We Believe in America.” A more appropriate slogan was provided by Eastwood. In the middle of his make-believe conversation with the President, the actor suddenly turned to the crowd. “I would just like to say something, ladies and gentlemen. Something that I think is very important. It is that, you, we . . . we own this country.”

He meant, of course, that government should serve the People and not vice versa. However, for those who view the Tea Party as more pathetic than patriotic, it carried a sense of regret over lost power and influence – a fear real that it has become more accurate for them to sigh, “We owned this country.”

The Republicans in Tampa put out a compelling enough narrative for change (or perhaps more accurately for undoing change) but an insufficiently honest one to guarantee survival after refutation by Obama and the Democrats. Even more than Obama in 2008, they will need a continued insipid economic recovery to finish the job for them. They may ultimately defeat the President but they will not be able to say they built it themselves.

Grades –
     Eastwood – Absent
     Rubio – B
     Romney – B-
     RNC Night Three – B-

     RNC Overall – B

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

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+